All the small things

Do you listen in on other people's conversations in the name of research? Of course you do. It's our fine details - our unseen words and movements - that make up who we are and provide the best material!

If you’re anything like me, you like to watch people. Not only that, you like to listen in on their conversations then make a note of what they say and how they say it. You do it because you can’t help it. You’re a complete nosy parker. And you’re a writer.
Every second I spend on public transport is more than just a way for me to get from A to B, it’s research for my writing. I observe people and take in their quirks and nuances. I watch how they live.

Our days are filled with mundane words and movements. As writers, we have licence to omit these details from out work. However, it’s these lost conversations and unseen twitches that make us who we are.

My favourite writing – the writing I like to read – tends to focus on the fine details. I care far less about what characters look like than I do the way they walk across the road or how their lip curls when they get nervous. I’m fully into the specifics.

He does what? Why? How?

In my novel, I have a character called Benny. Without Benny, there would have been no novel. He starred in the very first sentence I wrote, a sentence which remains unchanged and effectively opens the story following a short first chapter.

‘Benny paints pictures with his eyes closed.’

That’s it. Seven uncomplicated words. That Benny paints pictures with his eyes closed has little bearing on the plot. But it’s a detail that sets the tone of the novel and demands questions. It piques interest.

Compare it to, ‘Benny paints pictures,’ or ‘Benny is a painter.’ Don’t work quite so well, do they? That’s because they lack detail. These sentences could appear anywhere and be written by anyone. There’s no mystery. There’s no romance.

Dare to be different

So the next time you describe a character, I urge you to think about the details. Go beyond their name, clothing and the colour of their eyes. What really makes them tick? How did they get to where they are now? Where is the detail in their story?

That’s how I believe stories are created and brought to life. The details help you avoid cliche and develop characters that read like they live and breathe in the real world. They are what make us readers care about them. They are what set your work apart.

6 Comments

bridgetwhelan@hotmail.co.uk 24 February 2011 Reply

You are so right! The devil is in the detail…but, of course, it has to be the right detail. Ash blond hair and sparkling blues eyes just won’t do it….You can think of people you know personally and see often, people you care about and are interested in and you still wouldn’t be able to say for certain whether they wear glasses. You might know that their mother died of cancer and they are scared of moths…that they always tap a cigarette three times on the packet before lighting it and lie about their age…but spec? You couldn’t risk your house betting on it…in litrature as in life…

iain@writeforyourlife.net 28 February 2011 Reply

And that’s the trick of writing – it’s one thing being able to absorb details and quite another to know which should make it to the page!

Anonymous 24 February 2011 Reply

Nice reminder. I do the transport game too. I look at people and judge them on their appearance, especially the little details that suggest that something in them doesn’t conform to the ‘uniform’ they are wearing. For instance, the other day I saw a girl in forgettable jeans and sweater, but an exquisite marcasite ring that curled down the entire length of her middle finger. Most of her clothes were to keep her anonymous among other people. The ring was for her. It was what she saw when she dialed the phone, smoothed down the pages of a report or used her keyboard.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 28 February 2011 Reply

I tend to invent little histories for people. Or I wonder what they were doing before that moment and what they’ll do for the rest of the day. My novel is filled with little bits of seemingly insignificant details. But they’re what make up a whole.

iain@writeforyourlife.net 28 February 2011 Reply

I tend to invent little histories for people. Or I wonder what they were doing before that moment and what they’ll do for the rest of the day. My novel is filled with little bits of seemingly insignificant details. But they’re what make up a whole.

Anonymous 24 February 2011 Reply

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Iain Broome and Roz Morris, Megan Lentz. Megan Lentz said: Love it that writers have permission to stare – All the small things http://t.co/fkvOagC via @iainbroome […]

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