ABC’s of Fiction Writing: S if for Significant Details

Posted by on Mar 20, 2015 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

Photo on 2-19-15 at 1.32 PMDetails are the stuff that breathes life into a story. But how do you find the right details? What all can details accomplish?

I’m an advocate of choosing details that are not only specific, but also significant. They need to do more than just look pretty; they need to also do some of the work of story-telling. There are three types of significant details I wish to discuss:

1. Details that add depth to the world, helping to define the characters and their surroundings

We’ve all heard that it’s better to show than to tell; choosing the right details for your story helps you do that. An easy thing to do is show everything in the character’s world: if you have a character in her car, you might say the make and model of the car. But those details are not significant, they’re merely specific. Better would be to say that her car has rotten fruit on the floor of the passenger’s side, stacks of paper coffee cups in the cup holders, and that there are coffee drips on the steering wheel; these details help the reader understand that the character isn’t real interested in cleanliness, and that she drinks coffee while driving—rather than finishing her coffee at home—and is therefore probably always running late.

2. Details that help to show the character’s mood or motives by how the character interacts with the details

If the woman gets into her car then, and for the zillionth time notices how filthy it is, how it smells like rotting fruit, how the steering wheel is sticky to the touch, but by golly, it’s not her responsibility to clean the car, her boyfriend left the fruit in the car, and her boyfriend spilled coffee on the steering wheel—well then, we get a sense that she’s having boyfriend trouble. They’re having a standoff, and this thing, the lack of sanitation in the car, is something that’s clearly bugging her, but she won’t fix it on principle. That’s a totally different story than if she noticed the fruit and coffee, and though gee, I should clean this up, but by the time she gets home, she’s already forgotten.

3. Details that give the story a feeling of roundness, of “having come full circle,” by repeating in the story

If, after spending time with the woman in this car that her boyfriend has made filthy, we see her come home to her boyfriend, and he’s waiting for her, jingling his car keys, with a paper cup of coffee in hand, we know how she’s going to feel about this. We know he’s waiting to use the car. We also know, then, that he doesn’t have his own car. (What a freeloader!) You don’t even need to tell us she’s going to be annoyed, she’ll be thinking great, now he’s probably going to spill coffee on the seat too, I’ll never be able to resell this car for a decent price. It’s all there, accomplished simply by repetition of the coffee.


Jeni McFarland is in her second year of the M.F.A. program in fiction. She is a Michigander, and has worked previously on a snow removal team for a roofing company, as a housekeeper for a hotel, and as the pastry chef of a country club. Her work has appeared in Crack the Spine, Forge, and elsewhere.

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