Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, stressed the importance of details and finding the right word at a Kepler’s book signing event some years ago in Palo Alto, California. To make his point he read some writing examples with and without details. And in his humble way showed us the difference between bland writing versus writing that popped with imagery. I often think back to that night when I’m struggling to find the right word or detail. And all it takes is the thought of giving my readers bland writing to jolt me into action and make me dig more deeply.
Given Markus Zusak’s success, he’s no doubt given the “importance-of-details” talk numerous times in front of audiences all over the world to the point where you might argue that one event blends and blurs into the next.
Well, I bet I could bring Markus Zusak back to that night many years ago through the power of details. And I suspect that this is all it would take to plant him in that moment:
You begin to speak, a loud grumbling underground shakes the walls. Quite calmly, but puzzled, you step away from the podium and stand a little closer to the signing table. Again a loud grumbling shakes the walls. You look to us—your audience—for a reaction, clearly confused that we continue to sit there quietly, listening and very much focused on you. The third time the ground grumbles, your eyes dart back and forth from us to the floor searching for an explanation, until you finally ask, “Should I crawl under the table?”
Poor guy! Markus had never experienced an earthquake before. Once he learned it was just a mild one, he proceeded along in his talk and urged us to find the right word and to do your research to build trust between you and your reader.
Sometimes writers go a little overboard in their research. I became so fascinated by the world in LARA’s GIFT, I wanted to know everything about it down to the clothing Lara and her family might have worn. In my hunt for details, I found Irina from Traditional Russian Costumes who shared her knowledge of Russian period clothing with me and even made period costumes and my very own Kokoshnik (woman’s hat).
To pull readers in and engage them, strive for details that are meaningful to your story. Be sure to “own” your characters by picking details that make them stand out in a memorable way. Think of Harry Potter and the lightning bolt scar J. K. Rowling brilliantly wove into the storyline. Not only was the lightning bolt scar a specific detail I’ve never seen used in children’s literature before, it was also a meaningful detail—in revealing character and advancing plot—that carried importance in each of the seven Harry Potter books.
Details are the foundational blocks to building a good story. They let your readers see and feel their way through your story. They establish setting and make your characters come alive. Details that evoke the five senses intensify the reading experience for your readers and will leave them with images that stay with them long after they have read the last page.
Mark Twain perhaps said it best, “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. ”
Announcement: Natasha Wing won the free copy of LARA’S GIFT. Thank you to those who participated in the contest.