Use Telling Details to Connect Description to Character

Image: close-up photo of a miniature antique car in the foreground, with blurred city street in the background.
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Today’s post is by editor and author Joe Ponepinto (@JoePonepinto).

Some editors (like me) will occasionally admit they might decline a submission after reading only a few paragraphs. It’s not that they are mean-spirited, or jaded, or working too quickly to get through the submission queue. Instead, their experience allows them to instantly recognize when writing doesn’t meet their journal’s standards. Often it’s in the details—in the lack of telling details, that is.

For example, very often we begin reading submissions that start with a description of a person or a place. Too often the details offered are flat and generic, describing only superficial aspects. Kind of like reading a police report:

The man in the airport had brown hair and blue eyes, and wore a black suit and shiny shoes. He walked briskly toward the shuttle to the international terminal.

This approach creates distance between the reader and the character because it offers no depth, no insight into the person described, and therefore it encourages the writer to adopt an explanatory tone, one that treats the reader as a passive listener who must be educated, lecture style, about the world of the story. But good fiction creates an illusion of real life. If so, then shouldn’t the details of a story be presented in a way that reflects how we discover the world in our real lives, rather than a classroom?

One main key to compelling, immersive fiction is in how details are conveyed. Dull fiction assumes the reader doesn’t know the basics of a scene—if it takes place at a bar, then that bar must be thoroughly described; if it’s a hospital, everyday details about the hospital must be expressed. Good fiction assumes the reader is familiar enough with bars and hospitals to not have to describe them from scratch—only the details that are important to the characters are conveyed.

Which approach is more organic and more effective? Think about how you encounter the world. What things do you notice and what things do you not? Human beings are evolved to notice what is out of the ordinary. We tend to pay less attention to the things we see on a regular basis. This allows us to move forward more efficiently in our lives—imagine what it would be like if we had to pause and consider what the red, yellow, and green meant on a traffic signal every time we encountered one. But because we have seen these signals many times before we don’t have to think about what they mean.

That’s a simple example, but consider how this applies to fiction. Stories that offer the surface details treat readers as though they don’t know what a traffic signal is for. They tend to describe everything in a scene, even the details that don’t matter:

At the party, Sue stood against the green wall, watching. There was a landscape painting across from her. She watched people choose beers from the blue ice chest and food from the spread on the linen-covered table.

That may be real, but it is not life. Do we need to know that the wall is green and had a painting hung from it, or that the ice chest is blue, or that there is beer and food at a party? What does this tell us about Sue? Not much. The writer needs to connect Sue’s surroundings to her character. Also, the delay created by overdetailed description works against the need of a story to move forward.

Good stories concede the banal and instead offer details that have deeper meaning. The writer considers, “What would the character notice and why?”

Let’s go back to that man in the airport. If you’re in an airport you probably pass hundreds of people on your way to your gate. You can’t notice them all, so what about this man makes him stand out?

The man in the airport seemed to be watching me.

You don’t have to describe his height, weight, hair color, eye color…not until they matter. What matters at the start, and what the character notices, is that he is watching. It’s out of the ordinary. It portends possible danger, or at least something unusual.

And as for Sue:

At the party, Sue found a niche away from the crowd, too shy to talk to anyone. These were not her people. But knowing them could mean a big break in her career.

We no longer know what the room looked like, but we know several important things about Sue. Which will lead to the more interesting story?

This is a concept I first encountered reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works. It’s another way of describing close third person POV, but I like the term “telling detail” because it reminds the writer that the details need to inform us not just about what the character saw, but why they mattered—why they are “telling.” And that leads to character depth, the kinds of characters that populate good fiction. We learn about them subtly, through their reactions—how they act and speak in response to the world around them, and the situations in which they find themselves. If fiction is an illusion of real life, then you have to give your reader both parts—the real and the life. It often makes the difference between a dull story and an engrossing one.

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