Watching movies by accomplished directors is a masterclass in detail. Watching films by Charlie Kauffman, Christopher Nolan, or P.T. Anderson show how vital the right details are to the storytelling experience.
Sidenote: as a part of your education as a creator, movies should be a regular part of your diet. Bonus points if you watch the same film several times through and also find the screenplay to read alongside one of your watches. Just as you should read books with a pencil in hand, you should watch movies like there is nothing else happening in the world.
Directors of movies and plays take careful consideration into the mise en scene - the arrangement of things within the story. In a film, this is everything that is happening within the frame - the demeanor of the actor, the lines they speak, the costumes they wear and the brand of cigarettes they smoke. It is also the soundtrack in the background, the arrangement of books on the shelf, and what was eaten off the dishes on the table. These are the type of details that define the story.
Details are for the reader. It is what frames the experience of the story and what gets focused on when the story moves forward. Details give foresight on where the story might go next and what the audience should be ready for. When it comes to telling your story, the details are the thing that only you can provide. They are what is afforded to you by your perspective.
Themes are what tie your story to the cosmos. Details are the color of the thread you use to tie in.
Early on, there are never enough details. They come out in the freewriting, in the early drafts. They may or may not work in with the final story or line up with your themes, but there can’t be enough of them.
The color of her hair, how warm the afternoon may have been
What was on the newscast that day or how far he fell.
The feeling of lace or how the drop of sweat tickled its way down a thigh
Early on, paint every picture. Walk every path through your garden and see what it has to offer you. The police report you had to write, once dry as a bone, now flourishes as you give it more time and attention. Take the time to smell the flowers.
A biologist can fill a notebook with what they observe in a 10X10 inch square of ground in your public park. It’s not just grass and dirt, but Kentucky Bluegrass (Poa Pratensis), sometimes known as smooth meadow grass. It was native to Europe but came to North America as it was a hearty variety that could grow lawns for manors throughout the Northeast….you can go on for a while, just about the grass. Not to mention the bugs which crawl, live, and feed among the grass or any of the sticks or acorns that might have fallen into the 10X10 patch. Let’s not forget the trash and cigarette butts they’ll likely find there - each deserving of its own page of size, shape, brand, smell, and story.
As you explore the details, you may find parts of the story you initially forgot. Our brain is good at hiding the harder stuff. The details are where new themes might show themselves. In the story about your dying parent, why are there so many words about the endless parade of flowers that arrived at your home in the following days, only for each bouquet to slowly wilt and die and fill your house with their own unique stench of...death?
Early on, there are never enough details. Dump out the box, find all of the pieces you could potentially work with. Lay them all out on the table and see what is going to serve your story. You need to see all of the details and ideas and anecdotes before you can decide what the good ones are.
Some people go to parties so they can hear themselves talk. You’ve known the type - they ramble on and on, telling a story with a thousand different little tangents. They’re saying “so anyway” a dozen times as they go back to the primary story. They describe every little detail because they have your attention so, why not.
And then the story ends. No matter what the ending is, it wasn’t worth all of the oxygen they burned to get to it. Too much detail is a distraction.
Every detail you give is something the reader has to carry; they want to know they’re carrying it for a good reason.
So, what details of your story are worth keeping?
Novelists like to fall back on the trope of Checkov’s Gun. Anton Chekhov was a Russian Playwrite who wrote, in some variation:
“if there is a gun in the first act, it must go off by the third.”
In other words, every detail should serve the overall function of the story. If the gun doesn’t go off, you owe your audience an explanation of why.
This isn’t to say you can’t go into great detail about the beautiful dress with the thin straps that she wore so well on a spring afternoon, for the added description hits harder in the third act when her best friend throws a glass of Merlot down the front of it.
The more details you add, the more your reader has to carry. Make sure you aren’t the rambler at the party who loves the sound of their own voice.
This isn’t to say your final story shouldn’t be rich with detail. Far from it.
Susan Orlean is exceptional with the details she uses. In The Library Book, she spends page after page describing the architectural beauty of the Los Angeles Public Library and the extent of the collections within its walls. She goes into detail about how paper and glue are impacted by water and mold. Orlean spends chapters on the life, times, and inner turmoils of a single Los Angeles vagrant.
All of this detail builds towards the grand story of the fire. It wasn’t just books that burned, but an individual’s ability to carelessly dismantle a culture. Without all of Orlean’s loving details, the fist of the library’s fire wouldn’t quite knock the wind out of us the way it does.
As the story starts to take shape and events, themes, and details start to come together, ask: will this come back? Will this be a detail you can bring up again to make another point?
Some details show up several times in a story to cue a reader’s emotion. The rich taste of Merlot is suddenly turned bitter; the reader should be as upset as we are about how the destruction of the white dress.
Other details tie us back into the themes of your story and remind the reader of why this story matters to them.
Of course, there will always be the details which remind the reader why this story could ONLY come from you.
And sometimes, yeah, there are things in the story purely for the pleasure of it. The Easter eggs are hidden in the margins. The inside jokes, the “you had to be there’s.” It’s the stuff your friends get a chuckle when they read it.
I mean, go ahead, use the details you desire so long as they don’t alienate or distract.