However, I've learned how details make or break my writing. When I started writing, I thought deluging the reader with details would pull her into my story. As you all know, though, a flood of detail often requires the reader to wade through dense paragraphs, trying to figure out what they should attend to. Too many detail dumps and the reader will skip the page or put the book down entirely.
What, then, makes details sing? Singing details (aside from their amazing vocal abilities) do several things:
1. They reveal emotional topography as well as the physical environment.
Can I just go to one of my favorites? When I was five, I saw a live performance of The King and I- with Yul Brenner. I remember the Yul's shining head, swirling skirts from the ball dance, and the fireworks as Mom and I left the theater.
It wasn't till much later as I watched the movie that I noticed the attraction between the King and Anna. It was the moment he reaches out to take her in his arms- and she pulls back.
If I were writing that scene, I could put down paragraphs of how both of them were attracted to each other. Or, I could simply describe how the previously forthright Anna pulls back when the king attempts to put his hand on her waist. It's an amazing detail.
2. They are unusual. I remember a first pages panelist telling us we must describe something the reader doesn't expect. You could spend yourself describing a loud Marine sergeant as he greets rookies with paint-peeling language. But guess what? We expect Marine sergeants to do that. So, no matter how well you describe it, the readers won't care. You wasted space showing them something they've already seen. We need to look for the details that make our sergeants different from all the other guys yelling at the recruits.
I've been revising and revising, so I've been hunting details that sing. I sit with my eyes closed a lot, scanning a scene to figure out what a reader most needs to see.
To me, attention to important details was responsible for one of the biggest jumps in my writing. I'd never thought of winnowing through all the things I could describe to find the few that I should describe. It took a lot of work to even think that way. It still does. But it has become one of my favorite parts of revision.
I'd love to know what you think. What makes a detail sing for you? How do you choose what you describe in your own work?