#InboxWednesday -Detail Swarms & Dialogue

Hey everyone. How’s your day going? Do anything exciting?

We’ve got two questions to answer today for #InboxWednesday. If you want your questions answered, send me an email.

It’s February, which means a new month, and that means a new calendar page. I have openings for coaching AND for manuscript edits. If that’s what you’re looking for, or you’re not sure, but kinda sure that you want to take your writing to the next level, today’s a great day for you to find out. Email or tweet, and let’s talk.

Onto the questions. We’ve got two craft questions today, they’re good ones.

In FiYoShiMo, you talk about finding details that push and pull the reader through the story. How many details is that, and which details do that better than others? – Mary

To start, I don’t want you to think that there’s a detail pecking order. There’s no set in stone hierarchy that says you always start with a detail about color or weight then move to a detail about smell or feel. If there were, writing would get formulaic and an author’s unique or personalized construction goes out the window.

One of the decisions you make as a writer is choosing the details you’re going to provide. Decision making is critical to writing, because what you choose is what we’re going to picture in our heads as we read it.

I say that, Mary, and sometimes an author starts thinking that they need to give me all the details possible, so that the picture in my head is 100% a copy of the picture in their head. A duplicate picture sounds like it should be ideal, right?

It isn’t. Because there’s no room for the reader to fill in any gaps on their own. Not sure what I mean? Here’s an example:

Bad example: The desk is cluttered. There are three glasses of water, two half full, one empty. The jar of pens is crammed, with nine black, three blue, a red and a purple pen top jutting out like a gothic editorial bouquet. The iPhone charging cord snakes across the space, dividing the fourteen square inch parallelogram of left side desk real estate into two right triangles. One is littered with three poker chips, one orange and two white. The other is filled with a steno pad, with six lines of notes. The first three are phone numbers, the fourth is a time for an appointment, the fifth and six are reminders of what to do before noon.

Yes, that helps you to know what to see, but it reads stiffly. What good does knowing all those details do for you? See the first sentence about cluttered? Why does that sentence need the further and specific expansion so that you know how it’s cluttered?

This isn’t a Chekov situation, where those poker chips are going to be hurled at rodent assassins from the future, so does knowing they’re on the table really provide that much insight into the character who owns the desk?

Let’s find the concepts about that character that we want to convey. We want to say this guy works a lot, doesn’t stay super tidy for long, and tends to work in a familiar space. Aside from the tidiness, how does our bad paragraph convey the other two concepts (hint: it doesn’t). Since it doesn’t, you come out of the paragraph not aware of the character concepts, so in that paragraph, you can’t invest in them. And woe to anyone who starts off the first page with those details, because you’ve also slowed any potential momentum to a crawl as you picture each item and its placement.

The rewrite: A cluttered desk sits in the corner of the cramped room. With all the pens and notes in a pile on the left side, a good breeze could spill days of information in too many directions. Light from the dirty window fractures as it passes through an empty glass, leaving a small rainbow on a steno pad. I decide not to touch anything.

Introducing “I” into the paragraph gives the story a bit of momentum. The bulk of the details are entrusted to the adjective “cluttered”, and amplified with the idea that a breeze could scatter the contents on top of the desk. If I needed to write additional and specific details, I could do that in a subsequent paragraph, using momentum to make the detail matter. I’d prioritize the critical details as the details essential for plot, rather than having them be on the page so you know where and how every atom is organized.

This is an unspoken contract between reader and writer. Trust your readers to want to be swept up by your story, which isn’t measured in the volume of details but in their application.

Dialogue is supposed to sound like people, right? But I need to make sure the audience knows what’s happening, so should I just have the characters talk any plot once and never call it back? – Steve

Yes, dialogue is supposed to sound like how people speak. It’s supposed to be natural, and feel authentic. Whether you accomplish that with slang or profanity or grammar or whatever, make sure you never sacrifice that sound.

As in Mary’s question, there’s an element of trusting your reader. Dialogue is one of the ways people invest in characters, because they sound like people they know, and in part that allows for the reader to project some relativity to the fiction.

The problem with your idea is that the distance between talking about doing a thing and the thing getting done could be huge. Not just single pages, but chapters, especially if you’re doing the change-narrators-each-chapter concept.

While people are smart enough to remember story details, these are also the same people who misplace their keys or who forget items off a grocery list and forget why they’ve walked into the kitchen and opened the fridge. Memories are great, but hardly perfect.

Also, when you have people who sound like people, they’re gonna talk about whatever shit is going on in their lives. It’ll have some feeling of “Can you believe this shit right here?” to it, and that’s a good thing.

Dialogue is a character’s reaction to the events of story, and a way of sharing the experience of the story with the other characters along with the reader. In doing that, you’re conveying to the reader that the characters exist in a larger sense than just a string of words with some capitalization. You’re treating them like people, which also means you’re treating the reader like people, which means the reader can invest into what’s going on.

It sounds, Steve, like you’re as much asking for permission as well as a specific answer. You don’t need permission from anyone. You do you. The editorial process can suss out if the dialogue falls flat and belabors the plot when it comes up.


A ton of thanks to Mary and Steve for their questions today. I’ll see you Friday for more blogging goodness. Until then, do something good for yourself. You’re worth it.

Also, if you have a second, come celebrate 2 years clean and sober with me on social media.

Happy writing.

Posted by johnadamus

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