It’s in the details – learning to write

urlHow many times do I have to hear “it is in the details”? Growing up I was reminded over and over again to slow down and watch the details. When making something – sewing, crafts, caning seats on chairs – everyone I worked with said “Jo, slow down and watch for the details.” I was a person who moved fast, saw things fast and had trouble going back to fix things but fix things I did. When you are working with artists/craftsman/craftswomen/seamstresses – you stop and go back. You watch each weave or stitch even if you want to just run ahead.

Now as a would be writer I see again the need to watch the details. It is where you find the quality of what you are making or writing. When weaving a chair seat you don’t want to skip over a hole that needs to be woven. Once the chair is done it will stick out like a sore thumb and the weave will be weak and not support the person who is sitting on your chair.

In writing the same is true. The details pull your story together. They weave through the story to support our characters and make them come alive. The little things like the color and type of a phone, the style of shirt someone wears help us see these people as real. The little flash in our head that goes off as we read – “Oh, I have that shirt” or “I wanted a phone that color” is what helps to pull us into the story. We make connections in the little details.

It is these details in writing that make your story have a general appeal. We may not have been through cancer like your character or a divorce or a major move but we know they are like us because of the details we include about their daily life. Our writing has a general appeal because we included a street name, a specific song title or artist. These details hold our story in a specific time, place and style. We feel it could be real.

When we or an author include the name of the gum the characters are chewing, the street the characters are walking down (and it is a street that could be found) it makes a difference.

Although I know this as I read it was this morning in the shower that it hit me again with great force. My character, Lily, is missing to many details. In my hurry to write her story I may not have not made her as real as I should have.

So questions began to pop into my head and I couldn’t get out of the shower fast enough – I had to write them down.

  • She moved from one state to another but I didn’t keep a friend connection – I wondered why is Lily not writing with the friends she left behind? What should I have added to this story?
  • She is a modern kid in a modern city – she would have a cell phone but maybe not have had one in the small rural mountain area she moved from – how does that make her feel?  Where parents didn’t get one for her but Grandma does? The push pull between adults is missing in my writing.
  • She has a new camera – what makes it better or worse – what are the details that bring that camera into use within the story? What is missing from the old camera?

All these details are not about the main thread of the story. They are not the twist and turns of the plot but they are what will make Lily seem real and a person you might want to be a friend with or get to know better. It is the details that will weave the story together making it feel real and strong.

So once again I listen to my past mentors to slow down and find the details, watch for the quality in my writing. My characters need to be able to connect with my readers by shared experiences, emotions and details. I need to include the little things so that the larger story holds together for my readers.

So I am off to have a writing conversation with my main character Lily – I am really wondering how does she feels about that cell phone Grandma wants her to have that her parents always said no to. An interesting detail to follow for the days writing.

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About Joanne Toft

I am a retired Minneapolis Public School teacher. I walk, garden, help in schools and write. Life is good!
This entry was posted in Reflection, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

9 Responses to It’s in the details – learning to write

  1. Ramona says:

    Love this powerful reminder: “We make connections in the little details.” Here’s to a good conversation with Lily!

  2. LSquared says:

    Description. Writing small. Laying in the true exact details you envision is necessary. If I cannot see the story I’m lost. Description makes the person, the scene, and the events believable. I remember Barry Lane’s whacky story about a tree on the playground that gets bored and pulls itself up by the roots and takes off.
    Every time I tell that story, with tons of details and watch my students picturing it…buying into it, I realize that details create the mind movie.
    If the picture is fuzzy or blurry, or the camera is moving too fast, it is all out of focus.
    Thanks for your thoughtful post!

  3. Tara Smith says:

    Loved reading this, as I work through writing issues of my own. Thank you!

  4. You just proved why “it’s all in the details!” I really enjoyed your post. I had to have a conversation with one of my main characters yesterday and she told me what I was waiting to hear. 🙂

  5. arjeha says:

    I would always tell my students that the details make the story come alive. Even the smallest detail is significant.

  6. Linda Baie says:

    Wonderful to hear this, Joanne, and I adore the connection you made to this: “When weaving a chair seat you don’t want to skip over a hole that needs to be woven.” Beautiful, something to make into a quote and frame! I have had my students draw to find the details, the characters, setting, etc. & it helped them. Hope you have a good talk with that “Lily”!

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