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Significant detail


The blog of Stephen Arnott (aka S J Arnott). Writer of the Leofric Dark Age adventures and Jack Bleacher.

Significant detail

Stephen Arnott


In my last post, Show and Tell, I wrote about the differences between 'showing' and 'telling' a story, and the best ways to use details to build a narrative. Although it's important to keep detail to a minimum (to avoid clogging your text with unnecessary words) we should always look for opportunities to make quick wins – places where we can tweak existing text so it's working as hard as it can to deliver information about character and plot.

In Show and Tell, I used the example of our protagonist, Harry, making some purchases:

Harry walked down to the store and bought himself a pack of gum and a magazine.

The above is serviceable, but it's relatively simple to adjust this text so that it tells us a little more about Harry. For example:

Harry walked down to the store and bought himself a pack of spearmint gum and a copy of ‘Guns and Ammo’.

Adding details such as the flavour of the gum and the name of the magazine don’t cost us much in terms of extra text, and they help give the reader a sharper mental image of the picture we’re trying to paint for them. These choices also help to establish Harry’s character. If Harry had bought a pack of Juicy Fruit and a copy of Kerrang! we'd have a very different idea of what his tastes are.

One of the easiest ways to sharpen the reader's metal image of a scene is to use 'proper' nouns i.e. specific names rather than general ones. Rather than say a dog is sitting outside the store, we can sharpen the focus by saying it's a Beagle or a Basset Hound. Both these breeds will be familiar to most readers. Alternatively, if later in the story, Harry is chased by a dog, it will help to sharpen focus and establish character if we name the dog as a Rottweiler (if Harry is a tough guy), or as a Chihuahua (if he's not).

However, adding this level of detail might not always be appropriate. For example, if a bird makes a mess on Harry's car, it's probably not worth pointing out that it was a Great Crested Flycatcher unless knowing the species is important to the plot, or Harry is a keen ornithologist and this is the kind of thing he'd notice. In the same way, if Harry takes a picture of the dirty bird, do we need to know that he uses a Nikon D3000 Digital SLR with a Top-Max 420-800mm high def telephoto zoom, or is it enough to say he has a fancy Japanese camera with a lens as long as his arm?

When you're reviewing text, ask yourself if slipping in significant details such as these will help or hinder the story.

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The short story Leofric: Sacrifice is now available on Amazon (£0.99/$0.99). Set in Dark Age Denmark, the story follows Leofric as he finds a woman murdered in the woods near his uncle's hall, then sets a trap to unmask her killer...