The Power of Details in Writing

Once upon a time, there was a writer who spent several years completing an entire first draft of a work of fiction. It was only then, as he took a last gander at a solar calendar spanning the duration of his tale, that he realized an important event in the storyline needed a full moon to be credible and in reality the moon would have been only in the first quarter.

This discovery led to another weaknesses or two in the manuscript, so our fellow trashed the whole draft and started over. It took another year for him to completely re-write what would become one of the most beloved fables of all time.

The man: J. R. R. Tolkien. The book: Lord Of The Rings.

Such painstaking research is proof-positive of the power of detail.

It may seem a little extreme to scrap the whole thing after spending so many years to finish it. Why didn’t Tolkien just change the setting to full moon? Who was going to know….or care? Well, he cared and you should too!

Good detail drives a story better, adds more color to the characters and leaves lasting impressions in the mind of a reader. If you’ve read The Lord Of The Rings you no doubt can still recall favorite richly detailed passages.

Let’s look at an example of the difference using research and detail makes in laying out a setting.

In this scene, which takes place in 1978, two women are having lunch in a pub while a TV broadcasts the Super Bowl in the background. One of the characters, named Chris, is about to deliver some bad news to her lunchmate. Version #1 contains basic writing. Version #2 has been re-written to include detail and facts about the 1978 game:

Version #1 –

The TV on the wall showed the Super Bowl pre-game show. We didn’t pay any attention to it but Chris made a comment about the Denver Cowboys. “Speaking of Denver” she started, then trailed off. Perhaps she wasn’t sure if this was the right time. But she continued after a brief moment of gathering her thoughts.

“Tom has gotten a job offer in Denver,” she said. “He’ll have about two weeks after graduation to report for work.” Her eyes were steady as they took in my reaction. I absorbed the impact of her statement. “You’re moving.” I said, flatly. I sounded calm to myself; on the inside though, my heart was heavy. Denver – it may as well have been China – a whole world away. Although I wanted her to stay, I wanted her to be happy in her new life more, the new life she had worked so hard for. It took everything I had to stop a flood of tears. I gathered up my composure and cleared my throat.

“When would you be leaving?” From her I had learned the value of support in friendship. I would not let her down.

Version #2 –

That year’s opposing teams were Dallas and Denver and Denver, it seemed, was to be a topic of both camps – in New Orleans and our booth at The Normandy. “Speaking of Denver,” Chris started, then trailed off. Her voice had the timbre of uncertainty, as if she wasn’t sure if this was the right time. Our server arrived with tall tumblers of iced tea, straws and silverware. It was the interruption Chris needed to gather her thoughts.

“Tom has gotten a job offer in Denver,” she said casually as she tore off of the paper cover of her straw and dropped the thin, clear cylinder into her icy drink. “He’ll have about two weeks after graduation to report for work.” Her blue eyes were steady as they took in my reaction.