• Rachel Paige

Collect the Details

To me, one of the hardest things about writing is making up details


I've talked about description before (here and here) and the importance of details in description. Details are the key to realism. But they're hard to make up. It's why so many writers resort to naming wall colors.


But while good details are hard to make up, they aren't hard to steal.


I carry a notebook in my backpack for details I see throughout the day. Every time I notice something interesting about a place I'm in or a person I see, I write it down. This might be their hair color, jewelry, clothing, voice, mannerisms, or what they're holding. It might be the furniture in a room, the decor, a weird draft, certain scent, or lighting.


Anything specific is a detail, no matter how normal or odd it may seem. Here's a few of the things I've collected.


From noticing the people:

-never wears shoes

-won't wear bare socks in the bathroom (takes socks off or puts shoes on)

-sleeps sideways in bed

-can remember everyone's phone number but their own

-wears watch on their dominant hand

-won't use red pens

-never wears matching socks

-always has crayons with them


From noticing places, I've made a list of things like:

-bed positioned with foot by the wall

-labeled desk and dresser drawers

-smells like citrus, but only in the doorway

-non-matching dining room chairs

-classroom in a different arrangement every day

-completely bare walls

-so many posters you can't see the walls

-books shelved on their sides (stacked)


Those are only a few things on the list that I found particularly interesting or unusual. But like I said, any specific is a detail, even if it isn't odd. In the room I'm in now, I could list the nine throw pillows on the couch, green carpet, and collection of children's books. Those are all a little unusual.


But I could also list the blue ceramic bird on the end table, the board games on the shelf, and the framed photo of me, my roommate, and a friend of ours. Those are all fairly normal things to have, but they're interesting and tell you about the room, my roommate, and myself.


However, when you sit down to write a unique character in a unique world, it can he hard to create details like that. I find myself taking longer to decide what's on a character's mantle than the dialogue for the entire chapter.


Instead of wasting time trying to create unique details, steal them from the real world. Carry a notebook or make a list in your phone. There's so many you'd never think of. So look around, notice, and write them down. Then when you need one, you have a place to start. What you need won't always be on the list, but it's a jumping point to get your creativity flowing.


Hint: try to avoid things like "green lamp" and "brown couch" because those probably won't help you characterize. Look for something more specific. Something that belongs to that specific person or that specific room.


Do you struggle to create details? If so, do you have a list like this?


Exercise:

  • Find a notebook or open a note on your phone.

  • List three things about yourself you could steal for character details.

  • List three details you could steal from the room you're in.

  • Add a detail for each person and place you interact with over the next few days.

  • Keep making notes as they come to you.

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