Writing Secrets: Pick the right detail and a character springs to life
“He was a gentleman with red whiskers who always went first through a doorway.”
This is how Guy de Maupassant described a character in one of his stories. Its details are so vivid and particular that they give us an instant impression of him.
As Ford Maddox Ford comments: “That gentleman is so sufficiently got in that you need no more of him to understand how he will act. He has been ‘got in’ and can get to work at once.”
It shows the power of detail. Its strength lies in particularity, in its specificity – in other words, in its quality, rather than its quantity.
The way you use detail in your writing can make it vivid and memorable. It’s one of those critical aspects that sets some writers apart. Let’s look at this paragraph which appeared in an assignment:
That was when one of the kids broke away from the heaving swarm at the door and sauntered over. Oh thank goodness. Someone was actually going to speak to her. Audrey turned, wondering if she should say hello or wait for the kid to greet her first. The kid didn’t smile. Without saying a word, she reached down and tugged Audrey’s dreads. Hard.
It has action and plenty of drama. We know something about the kid, from the fact that she “saunters” and we know she’s taller than Audrey, because she reaches down. These things are “shown” rather than explained to us. Well and good.
But what about the kid herself? We have no idea what picture to form in our minds.
When I mentioned this, our participant added: “The kid had short, dark hair and brown eyes. She was wearing blue jeans, a red shirt and black leather jacket.” Sounds like a police report, doesn’t it?
Firstly, it breaks our attachment to Audrey. In that moment, she’s not noticing all those details about the kid’s appearance. Ask any policeman what he gets from eye-witnesses, and you’ll know that.
Secondly, it still doesn’t give us a picture of the kid. We don’t need to know everything. We only need the most distinguishing of specific details. Does she have teeth like a horse, too large for her thin face? Perhaps her eyes are small drill-holes in a flat sphere.
That’s all we need. Give us something unique. Any number of people have dark hair and brown eyes. We’ll paint in those details for ourselves.
The same goes for places. We were recently working with someone on her memoir. She gave us every detail of a new lodging: the beds, the way the lounge was configured, where the bathroom was, which room lay where.
When she first arrived, there must have been distinguishing features that set it apart from other places she’d stayed. Give us those. We’ll glean the rest, as she tells her story, without having it explained to us.
Give us the main points, we’ll do the rest ourselves.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: How many layers can you add to your imaginary cake?‘