The details, please, to engage me

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Writing instructors plead with writers to supply details. They engage the reader in the story, so long as the writer can pick salient ones.

Marla colored her hair orange during the work-week. Weekends and vacations she reserved for shades of auburn.

I offer the above, which I dashed off in a Writer’s Workshop session this week, as an example of telling detail: the kind that a movie director might show us early in a film to give us a quick insight in to a character. (I hope it describes how impetuous Marla is about her appearance.)

This week I read a marvelous short story, Raw Material, from an aging copy of The Atlantic Monthly. (April of 2002, back when the magazine used to run short fiction in each issue, rather than an annual Fiction Issue.) In Raw Material, A.S Byatt tells about writing offered by a workshop student, 82-year-old Cicely Fox, who is telling how she cleaned and maintained the family stove in early 20th Century England. Byatt uses sensory writing to pluck his details:

The ovens behind other doors of the range might conceal the puffed, risen shapes of loaves and tea cakes, with that best of all smells, baking yeast dough, or the only slightly less delightful smell of the crust of a hot cake — toasted sugar, milk and egg.

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