Details are awesome. Fancy writing there, huh? But they are. They do so much in your writing. They are the paint we use to create a picture in a reader’s mind. Words don’t stay individual words when we read. They almost become silent translators as we “see” a scene in our heads, as we “watch” what happens in the book. So the more details we include, the more real the picture becomes. Tell me what I would see if I were there — is it sunny, cloudy, day, night, city, country, colorful, drab? Tell me what I’m hearing — traffic, birdsong, children laughing, raindrops, dogs barking, ominous silence? Tell me what I’m feeling — hot, cold, windy, sunshine? (The most vivid memory I have from a total eclipse when I was a child was the weird, clammy chill in the air as the sun disappeared; sunshine doesn’t usually suddenly leave, so the humidity seemed to freeze in the sudden shade.) When we read, we leave this world and feel like we’re in the world of the book, right next to the characters.
But just any detail isn’t good enough. “The sky was blue” isn’t a telling detail. The sky is always blue. That detail doesn’t take me anywhere. But if I said, “The sky was a weird shade of green, almost glowing toward the bottom where the sun was setting,” and if you were from the Midwest, you would know exactly what shade of blue sky I was talking about. Anyone from Missouri can tell you that’s a tornado sky. So not only can a Midwesterner see that sky in his head, he will then pull in all sorts of emotions linked to that color. He’ll feel anxiety and fear; he’ll feel hyper-observant and jumpy. And all I had to say was “weird green sky.”
Detail can also cement regional characteristics. Describe the trees. Trees are different everywhere. In the south you see lots of conifers; in the Midwest you see big leaves in summer and bare branches in winter. I edited a book recently about a writer’s life in outback Alaska, and I asked her to describe the landscape in every scene, because I’ve never been to Alaska. I can’t “see” it in my head. If you say “trees” to me, I see big Midwest deciduous trees, but I’m guessing Alaska’s trees are quite different. If you want to take me there as a reader, you need to tell me everything I would be seeing and smelling and hearing and feeling if I were there.
Subtle differences can really flesh out the picture. For example, the angle of the sun is different in the north from the south, in the fall from the spring. Here in the Midwest in the late afternoon in the fall, the sunlight does something strange to color. It becomes very vivid and deep, somehow. A blue sky in fall is almost purple-blue, while a July sky is so pale, it’s almost white. The shadows are darker in fall and the edges of the shadows are very clear, not fuzzy like in spring. Those details bring people who have seen it back to that memory, really clicking into what they know, and make someone who’s never been to the Midwest in fall “see” something they never would “see” otherwise.
The smell of food can really cement a scene in a reader’s mind. Every region has its unique cuisine. The smell of barbeque, cajin spices, seafood, Tex-Mex, fried chicken, stew — they set the reader in a particular region. And they might make you remember Mom’s cooking, or that amazing vacation when you were twelve. They tap into emotion.
In The Twelve, Justin Cronin uses detail to create emotion. In one scene, he describes a perfect summer day in excruciating detail. You feel the sweat running done your backbone, I swear. You see the faded blue-jean sky. You hear the cicadas singing in the trees. You watch the sun getting lower in the sky, the shadows creeping longer. And the more he builds this perfect day, the more anxious you become, because you know it’s too perfect. Something bad is going to happen. (And it does.)
I think some writers use detail just to exercise their writing chops. If the writing can’t be beautiful, poetic, they don’t bother with detail. But to me, details aren’t really meant to be poetic. I love it when they are, but in every book, they’re the meat and bones of writing, the scaffold we hang the action on.
So describe, describe, paint those word pictures, pull the readers into your world, but choose your details wisely. Pick ones that have emotional weight if you can. Pick ones that perfectly capture what is unique about what you’re describing, or pick details that are ubiquitous, the ones that everyone gets immediately, the ones that make them say, “Yes, you’ve hit it, that’s perfect!” Pick details that capture a moment in time so perfectly, the reader forgets he’s reading and is just there.