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Sweat the Details, but Only a Little

Knowledge is a blessing and a curse. A well-thought-out story can inspire, explain, inform, validate, shock, resonate, but the author of that story is responsible for knowing everything there is to know about their world. Reasonably, they want their readers to have that same knowledge and to engage in a full conversation about their world as they see it, but unfortunately, that's not always possible.

There is also a need for analysis and speculation, for some door to be left open so that a reader might be left with feeling as though the story goes on beyond the leaves.

Usually, an author's readers will know only a fraction of the author's world, their characters, their settings. Sometimes, even an author won't really know their own world because they've not fully explored it. With all of the existing narrative standards, knowing what to do or not to do with a story is frustrating. Writing without knowing whether your work is accessible is anxiety-inducing.

So, when/if an editor enters a manuscript, there are concerns to be expected. One of those happens to concern detail. For the purpose of this post, it's safe to assume that I'm referring to the fiction novel unless I state otherwise.

A common issue is the "curse of knowledge detailing". A writer will have planned their world out to the intricately decorated tops of their lampposts, and they'll lose sight of their primary story. Tangents, any breaks from the main story, can be refreshing. Perhaps they present a method by which the world becomes more rounded out, more real. Perhaps they say something about the culture of the author's world.

Too high a level of detail can confuse the priorities of the reader.

The intricate tops of the lampposts might be beautiful, but are they relevant? Do they say something about the character or the setting that can help people to better understand the world? Do they, in their seeming unimportance, provide a means by which the story can be more believable? Do we pull out one of the tops and find the murder weapon?

Possibly, but possibly not.

However, a well-placed detail of quality is an invaluable promise of intimate understanding.

Francine Prose (2006) says, "Great writers painstakingly construct their fictions with small but significant details that, brushstroke by brushstroke, paint the pictures the artists hope to portray, the strange or familiar realities of which they hope to convince us: details of landscape and nature (the facts of marine and whale biology in Moby Dick), of weather (the fog in the beginning of Dickens's Bleak House), of fashion...of music (the little phrase that haunts Swann in Swann's Way)...of all the things with which we humans express our complex individuality."

While the author might not fear their reader will not forget their author's humanity, the author might aim to create environments and people that are as complex as they expect their individual readers to be. Details can be powerful when properly used, but lose their shine when overdone. There are people who argue, for example, that despite the beauty of Herman Melville's prose, the litany of marine biology and facts thereof is overwhelming to the story. Perhaps these readers are applying too modern a standard to Moby Dick.

Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg is something I've found to be a tremendous example of detail done right, but detail done differently. Half of this book is a fictionalized historical document that tells the (fiction, I emphasize) story of legendary 18th century thief and prison escapee, Jack Sheppard. In this telling, would he have had the language, Jack might have referred to himself as trans.

"His mum made clear she'd had enough of Jack the day she brought him to the master carpenter Kneebone's doorstep in October 1713. As she marched him down Regent Street, sweat formed at the edges of her hairline, pinkening her alabaster face paint.

'Be a good girl. Do what you're told. Behave. Don't act shameful,' she said, regarding Jack sourly. They crossed dubious, slough-filled Tyburn and headed towards Cavendish Square. Sparrows nattered on hedges, tumbled in dust baths Underfoot, disregarding the burghers and high-toned ladies sweeping by.

His mother snapp'd her knuckle into his ribs as they approached the brown oak door.

'And walk like a lady! Try not t'stomp like an animal.'

Jack tried to imagine moving his legs more smoothly, like she said. But it didn't feel right to glide like jewel bearings in the guts of a well-oiled Clock. He liked to sprawl through Space, landing hard on the edges of his feet" (Rosenberg, 2018).

Focusing solely on the details, readers automatically get a picture of Jack's mother with her "pinkened alabaster face paint", a woman who is a woman, regards herself as a woman, and has "had enough of Jack" who she tells to "Be a good girl."

This is Jack. She brought Jack to Kneebone's doorstep. She brought, essentially, him to Kneebone's doorstep. Without knowing what Jack looks like, we instantly feel that there's something wrong with, "Be a good girl." Those words do not belong.

The chattering sparrows are a reminder of the world that exists around them. Sparrows, who chatter among one another, who the writer doesn't see a need to make sense of, do not need to worry about the same social issues as humans do. They simply are. They are allowed to be. They display the stark contrast between the simplicity of their lives and the ease at which they are able to meet their needs with those of complicated humans who have very different needs.

Then, Jack and his mother approach a brown oak door. Based on this detail, if we know a little about wood, we might imagine the door being heavy. If we are unaware of the heaviness or lightness of wood, we might understand that doors can be locked.

Essentially, Jack's perspective does not outright state any contrast between a "feminine" movement and a "masculine" movement, only the movements that feel most comfortable. My speculation is that Jack is aware of what his mother means when she says, "Walk like a lady", but again, those words do not fit Jack. It's possible that Jack does not even know what "Walk like a lady" means, only the way his mother sees it. The smooth movements that he describes do not feel right and, essentially, do not represent his own natural movements.

In this space, Jack is unable to even walk in his own shoes.

"He liked to sprawl through Space," in a beautiful moment of alliteration, "landing hard on the edges of his feet." The movement he desires might be more akin to the aforementioned sparrows. He wants to walk confidently, free of barriers and dark oak doors, like himself.

Overt or subtle, details should contribute to the experience of a story effectively without being too overwhelming or distracting (author's purpose, authentic voice, and style being an exception) from what a reader is meant to follow or prioritize.


Thank you so much to everyone who has given me feedback on Purposeful Prose thus far!

This post was inspired by the "Details" chapter of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and Those Who Want to Write Them. If you would like to follow along with this conversation and others, I highly recommend getting a copy of the books I engage with through your local independent bookstore or donates proceeds from book sales to independent bookstores and libraries. I have been buying all of my books through lately, and I love how every confirmation email lists out the bookstores that will be benefiting from my purchase, some of which I have yet to visit!

As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Prose, F. (2006). Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them (P.S.). Union Books.

Rosenberg J. (2019). Confessions of the fox : a novel. One World.

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Oct 17, 2022

Another fine post on an important topic. Selection of detail and attention to its purposes are really what bring a narrative into full life. Great illustration and analysis, as always.


Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
Oct 17, 2022

Such a crucial topic! Details about character and setting must be carefully measured and balanced in a way that not only facilitates the plot, but also piques the reader's interest. That is something that can easily (and often is) be taken for granted. Well done!!!

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