“The artist, having chosen his theme, picks out only those details that are characteristic and of value for his subject…and he rejects all the remainder and puts it to one side.”
Guy de Maupassant
Guy was a master at capturing a few revealing details in a situation and weaving a tale around them. Even now, more than 150 years after they were penned, his short stories are considered highly polished gems. But finding just the right details to write about isn’t always easy, because they are not just window-dressing, they are actually a window into the heart of a scene or a character description.
“What you want, in other words, is telling details, bits of reality that suggest something larger. At their best, telling details operate as symbols that help make an author’s case for a literary theme.” That’s how Jack Hart describes their value in his helpful guide, A Writer’s Coach.
Jack goes on to distinguish between details rooted in sensual reality and those that are more general and cerebral: “A well-chosen detail can tap levels of human response unavailable to writers who offer only abstractions and generalizations. Abstract writing can inform and persuade, but it cannot bring readers to genuine sadness or horror, or euphoria. Simply exhorting an audience to laugh or cry is pointless, and cheap tricks designed to manipulate emotions are readily apparent….”
The emotional power of details is actually rooted in our brains, notes Jack. Abstract thinking takes place in the cerebral cortex, the most recently evolved and advanced part of the brain. But emotion emerges from the brain’s ancient core as “the direct result of external stimulation. Because descriptive writing that’s rich in telling detail
can approximate experience, it can also reproduce a human being’s emotional response to experience.”
Fascinating isn’t it? When our words are powerful, they evoke powerful emotions, just as if they were being lived through by our readers. Immersing readers in our world or our characters lives through telling details is one of the most effective tools we have in our author’s kitbag — and yet so often, we take the easy way out, choosing words or phrases that tell rather than show, that register in the mind and not the heart or soul.
Telling details: Let’s use this awesome tool with creativity and gusto. and write on!