Today we'll talk about which details you should include and which you might ignore. In Writing Fiction, Janet Burroway said "No amount of concrete detail will move us unless it also implicitly suggests meaning and value." Lots of times we talk about narrative like a movie camera, panning in and out. But as every photographer knows the camera captures details even the most observant eye skips over.
How do we find detail with meaning and value?
In How Fiction Works James Wood describes two kinds of detail. Off duty and On duty. Both can be useful to a writer.
Off duty detail sets a scene and grounds the reader in a place. Lush writers like Alexandra Fuller use lots of sensory detail Wood would probably call "off duty".
"There is a hot breeze blowing through the window, the cold sinking night air shifting the heat of the day up. The breeze has trapped midday scents; the prevalent cloying of the leach field, the green soap which has spilled out from the laundry and landed on the patted-down red earth, the wood smoke from the fires that heat our water, the boiled-meat smell of dog food." Fuller, Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight, p. 5.
This is Rhodesia in the mid 70's. Most readers haven't come within a thousand miles or a decade of this scene in their own lives, but through Fuller's use of sensory detail we experience the heat and the smells. We are engaged.
Then there's On Duty detail. Detail that doesn't just describe how something smells or tastes or looks. Sensations that also reflect emotion or theme. In the first chapter of Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, the narrator, Summer, says her various foster families had always treated her like “a homework assignment”. Then when she goes home with May and Ob she finds a full larder-
“Whirligigs of Fire and Dreams, glistening Coke bottles and chocolate milk cartons to greet me.” p.8
This isn’t a story about Summer’s gluttony and the mention of these items is not there to make the house more real. These details are included to show how Summer’s life changed when she came to their house and why she misses May. It creates a subtext of happiness and plenty readers feel and believe much more keenly than if Rylant had said "May was a better foster parent than all the other families." Plus it's just more interesting to read.
Sarah Sullivan wrote about this sort of thing in the Tollbooth last June in a post titled Small Whitecaps and Wild Rugosa. Sarah described how in Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout portrays the sound of the tide rushing in over rocks. Sarah noted that the rumbling water reflects the point of view character's inner turbulence. Using sensory detail to reflect emotion and make the themes resonate through the work is called Objective Correlative. Go back to Sarah's post for a more detailed discussion. It's worth reading five or six or even ten times. Really. It's that good.
Whether to use on duty or off duty sensory detail- or maybe both- in your own writing is purely a matter of your own personal style. This is an essential element- in some ways the most essential element- of your own authorial voice. Writing that's rich with description, or spare with only the most essential detail, the way you strike that balance, is one of the major markers that will make your writing your own. There's no wrong or right way to do this as long as you approach sensory detail with intention and follow your own sensory beat.
Don't be a camera recording every single image you see, or smell, or hear in your fictional room. Be selective. Speak with your own voice. Open readers' senses through your own.
Then your writing won't be too hot or too cold. It will be just right.
Which books or writers do you turn to for wonderful examples or sensory detail? What sets their voice apart?