The minute details

One of the issues that many new writers have is the use of details — or, rather, the lack of. If you read my previous posts on using the five senses to detail your novel/short story, you will have some background information on what I’m talking about. Below is an extended example on how adding details really brings a scene to life.


I slowed down as I neared the accident. I could see billowing clouds of smoke through the dark night air, and it blurred my vision and made it hard to see. My car passed through a dim cloud of the smoke, and the two cop cars suddenly appeared through the darkness.

Ok, not bad, right? I described what I saw, in the order that I saw it. So what’s the problem? Well, I only described what I saw, and nothing else. What happens when you pass through smoke? Do you just see it? Or do you smell it as well? Here’s a better example on how to write the above scene, adding more visual details as well as sounds and smells.

I slowed down slightly as my tires crunched over broken glass, I could feel the sharp edges though my seat as the tire ground them deeper into the asphalt. My car passed through a dim cloud of smoke, my air conditioning sucking up and blasting me with the pungent scent of burnt rubber and gasoline. I covered my nose with one hand, trying to breathe in the vanilla lotion rather than the smoky haze. Blue lights flashed everywhere, blinking rapidly and illuminating my dashboard and my hands on the wheel.


After passing the cops, I was able to see the damage. There were three cars amid the police vehicles. One wasn’t damaged much, just a few dings in the front end. The car in the very front had the back end destroyed, the trunk caved in and paint gone. The middle car though, a small volkswagon, was a tragedy.

Again, what’s missing? In this section, it’s hard to add many sounds or smells, and no tastes, to the description as the narrator is describing a visual scene. So what to do? Beef up the description. Add in small details that your mind might pick up later after taking in the “bigger picture”…

There were three cars pushed together between the cops. The one farthest in the rear got it off the easiest—maybe needed a new bumper or just some good bodywork, being a large truck that probably helped. The first car’s rear end was destroyed, the trunk caved in and pushed down so that the license plate nearly faced the ground. The middle car, an old blue Bug with a green door, made my heart skip a beat.


This last part of the example shows how to use what I call the “whirlpool effect.” What I mean by this is, start with the big details, the ones that a person would initially notice from afar. Then, work your way down the ladder of details to the smaller and finite ones that would probably be missed if you didn’t take a second glance. Many authors stop after the large overview is described, but trust me, it’s very important to add in these little details, which causes the reader to pause and take in the scene from a new perspective. The first example is written without the use of the “whirlpool effect”:

The bug had been smashed completely, folded like an accordion. The back end was flattened, as if the truck behind it had ridden on top of it and crushed it nearly to the ground. The windows were busted out, and the paint and handles trashed. The car was definately totalled, leaving almost nothing untouched.

Again, adding the small and mostly un-noticed details:

The Bug had been smashed between the two cars, folded like an accordion until it was close to only a third of the length it should have been. The back end was flattened, as if the truck had ridden on top of it and crushed it so that it sat no more than a foot off the ground. Every window was gone, the glass piled in heaps near the odd angled tires, glittering like precious jewels in the midst of the carnage. It seemed the only thing untouched was the gray tinted Jack Ball on their antenna, the little clown in his yellow hat smiling as if the whole thing was a joke and that everyone should forget about it and go out for burgers, then everything would be alright.


It’s a little extra work on the writer’s part, and it definately takes more time to sit back and re-think your scenes, but it’s definately worth taking the extra step. Not only will your scene details be more vivid and believable, it also helps you slow down in other parts of your story (dialogue, action, etc) to look at the finer details and make sure that you’re putting everything into your story that you can. It can only help.


4 Responses

  1. Excellent! I especially like the examples you give to show that just a bit of rewriting brings the details into focus, puts the reader deep into the story.

  2. Thanks for the tips. It’s nice to see actual examples instead of just telling what works.

  3. This topic is very interesting to me and I agree with another poster that to an aspiring writer like myself this blog is gold.

    I never wrote anything before, but have just completed the first book of a series after two years of working on it, and one of the common compliments (or critiques) from friends who have read some of it are… uh… “You use such a richness of words.. It’s obvious you love words…” .(diplomatic for “wordiness”?). Or “You are very descriptive…You put the person right there in the story with all the details…”

    Interestingly enough I get mostly positive responses to my use of detail (description of character’s cloths, hair, eyes, etc…) from female friends, though my female cousin and one female friend suggested in general I use the rule of thumb; “Less is more.”

    I think it depends… I am finding that as I edit my story I am learning to apply the “Less is more” rule primarily to sentence structure, ie; how many words used to say something in a sentence. As opposed to describing an important scene as you show in your examples.


    I once read a one page description by Phillip Jose Farmer in his “RiverWorld” novel “The Magic Labyrinth”, of a scene describing Samuel Clemens stepping outside of the pilot house on board his Riverboat that showed his mastery of “wordiness”.

    He took a whole page to describe Twain puffing on his cigar as he surveyed the riverbanks going by on either side, and the sensation of the fabulous boat’s motion…

    “It was spanking along, paddlewheels churning, its flags flapping, brave as a tiger, huge and sleek as a sperm whale, beautiful as a woman, heading always against the current, its goal the Axis Mundi, the Navel of the World, the dark tower.”

    To that he added a mystical inner journey that spanned Twain’s soul and encompassed the universe in masterful description that left me in awe. All while Twain is standing there puffing on a cheroot. He ended it with Twain returning to the pilothouse control room where;

    “Erin the black pilot, looking up at him said, “You have been visited by the spirits.” “Do I look that peculiar?” Sam said. “Yes I have.”
    “What did they say?”
    “That I am nothing and everything. I once heard the village idiot say the same thing.”

    Obviously it is a matter of judgement how and when to use rich description and when as those friends put it; “Less is more”.

    I live and learn… Thank you for this blog.

  4. There is a fine line between good description and purple prose. Don’t skimp on the details, but do it in as few words as possible.

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