If there's one thing I'm not, it's detail oriented. When dealing with my car keys and anniversaries I'm as clueless as a cage fighter in Bed Bath and Beyond. You could even say I hate the small stuff. As a writer, however, I love them details. A good detail makes a scene or character as real as New Jersey. A bad one slows down the story, confuses the reader, and degrades your work. But how can we tell the difference between the good minutiae and the bad?
A Mundane Detail is a Good Detail
I never would have guessed this one on my own. I had to be shown this by superior writers. I once read a scene where a character tossed her car keys onto the counter. The reality of that moment frightened me. Why did none of my scenes pop into life like that? I told myself that it was because I wrote Science Fiction and Fantasy. Those kind of details just aren't found in my genre, I thought.
I can be dense at times.
The things people do and see every day are the best details. You only really need one, maybe two, to make a scene count. You want me to know something about a surfer? You could tell me about his blond hair, bronzed skin, and glistening muscular torso all day, and it wouldn't mean diddly. But if you tell me what kind of wax he uses on his board, all of a sudden I know the guy.
This is true no matter what the genre. In fact, the more outlandish the thing you are describing, the more amazingly powerful the minutiae become.
What is a description of the magnificent wings of the dragon when compared with the vibrations of its heartbeats that you can feel through the cave floor? How real is the piercing gaze of the Medusa? Not very. But if you tell me about her mood when her hair molts you'll find you've got my attention. You want a swordsman to come to life? Tell me about what kind of leather grip he puts on his sword.
How could I best know a golfer? What brand of clubs does he use? Does he have an idiosyncratic preference for a 9 iron in an odd situation? By all means, tell me about the long hair on the guitarist. You almost have to. But tell me also about the color of his favorite pick, or the callous on his thumb as you shake his hand.
One or two of these mundane hits should be all you need. Our imagination will do the rest.
A Sensory Detail is a Good Detail
Human beings have five senses, don't forget 'em. Very few things come to life like the description of getting smacked across the side of the face with a freshly baked blueberry muffin. If you're reading a scene, and you find that it's too abstract, pick a sense that you missed and throw it in there. You may be amazed by what comes out.
A Detail that Meets Expectations is a Good Detail
When wandering about the universe in which we inhabit, we have become accustomed to being able to gather certain information. If this information is lacking, the realism of the scene suffers. I for one, couldn't give two durns about whether the main character's dog is a Border Collie or a Pit Bull, Labrador mix. I'm not a dog person. But a ton of people are, so you bet your buttons that if I have to mention a dog in a story I call up a friend of mine to ask what breed of dog they own.
I've run into this problem in my current project with guns. In addition to guns, cars, bicycles and musical instruments also need extra exposition. If the thing has a cult following, you better make sure you give it its due.
Minutiae are wonderful for your story, but they can also weigh your narrative down into the dark bog of the non-published. They're kind of like salt. A little makes a bland meal lovely. A lot gives you high blood pressure. Flavor as appropriate!
Now where did I leave my car keys…???