Writing Secrets: How to show not tell with small details

 In Jo-Anne Richard's blog, Tips for Writers

It’s through the small details of a novel that we learn of the large issues, and from which we gain a sense of the world in which it takes place.

You don’t need to explain to us, for example, the mood of Belfast in the midst of the troubles. The small human interactions, the everyday actions of the characters, will tell us all we need to know.

I found a couple of examples the other day, which made me itch to share them with you. Adrian McKinty is brilliant at showing the relentless daily battle of his Belfast detective, Sean Duffy, to solve crimes in a lawless zone, in which violence is a constant.

But, here’s one small detail which impressed me. It’s a great example of writing small. It has no direct connection to the plot, but it’s a small textural detail, from which we infer the larger state of the nation – the way people live.

Whenever Sean Duffy goes anywhere, he checks under his car for bombs. It’s mentioned every time: “I showered, shaved, put on a suit and tie and took out my heavy wool coat. I checked under the Beemer for bombs.” We expect it. We wait for it, and in this way, it becomes as routine for us as it is for him. It becomes ordinary.

It’s a perfect way of showing us, and making us feel, what it’s like to be living in his world.

I also loved this interaction between Duffy and his former girlfriend which, without explaining a thing, transports us into their world.

Just before midnight, the phone rang.

“Hello.”

“I need someone to go with me to Liverpool. Will you go with me?”

It was Beth. I knew immediately what she was talking about.

“Is it mine?”

“Does it make any difference?”

“I think it does, a bit.”

“It’s yours.”

“And you don’t want to keep it?”

“I knew you’d be all Catholic on me. I should never have called. Fuck.”

Certain words and phrases – like “going to Liverpool” – have developed different meanings for those living within the constraints of their time. They understand each other, without explanation, which shows us everything we need to know about the mores within which they live, and how they are dealt with.

Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: Generate a galaxy of story ideas

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