Many of us have read stories or books that we have thought are quite dull. They fail to capture our fancy or our imagination. Often, the writers fail because they never truly make us believe their stories are real. We believe things are real when we see them, or touch them, or taste them, or smell them. In stories, the way to do that is detail. Believable details can convince a reader to abandon reality or even better capture a reader up into a new reality.

However, the right kind of detail can be a writer’s constant struggle: the battle between telling and showing. If you took any courses on writing or picked up a book that dealt with writing, you are sure to have heard this adage: show, don’t tell. However, despite this, it is still one of the biggest problems aspiring writers have. Writers tell the reader what is happening or has happened rather than showing them.

You can tell me that “Bill Jackson missed his daughter so much. She died in a terrible car accident and Bill was never the same again. He was so distraught that he became an ‘absent’ husband. Mary, his wife couldn’t stand it after three months. She was lonely and sad, but she still wanted to live. She left him, vowing to always look forward, not backward.” A lot happens in this passage, but the details are missing. How does Bill miss his daughter? What does he do? How does his wife reach out to him? Why do we, as readers, care? Now read the next paragraph.

“Bill Jackson paused on the top steps. Her room was right there on the right. The door was slightly ajar, like she had forgotten to close it tightly when she had come home from school. He reached for the door handle, as he had so many times before, the hope that she was there hurting inside more than the shattered glass they had removed from his chest seven months ago. Had it been so long? He pushed the door open and then stared for several minutes at the small bed and the dresser with a young girl’s ballet slippers on top, at the pinkness of the room that he would forever equate with the little girl that had once been his dancing angel. He almost expected to see her come twirling into the room, begging him to see how she could finally stand on her toes.

Bill Jackson came back down stairs after he had changed and washed his face. He walked past the kitchen and his wife without a word, sitting in his chair by the lamp. He missed the look of longing she gave him. He missed seeing her shoulders slump and the way her hand trembled as she set the water glass back on the counter. He even missed the smell of roast pork and cinnamon apple sauce brewing on the stove, favorites of his that she had taken the time to learn from his mother right after they were married. All Bill could focus on at this moment in time were the articles in Auto Future. He flipped through the magazine looking for the perfect car. He wasn’t looking for a certain color or look or great features. He was looking for one that was safe. A hundred percent safe.”

The difference between the two is obvious. One gives you details (ballet slippers, slightly ajar door, shattered glass, pink room, standing on her toes, wife’s trembling hand, smell of roast pork and cinnamon apple sauce) that bring the world to life. These details let us sense this world. This second selection also let’s you see Bill’s response to the world. He pauses at her door. The shattered glass hurt but his hope that she is there hurts more. Pink will forever remind him of specific memories he had with his daughter. He fails to smell his favorite food or notice how his wife is responding to his presence. He is intent on one thing: safety. These details bring Bill alive and even his wife a bit. They let the reader feel something.

That is what your details need to do. Don’t tell the reader it is a sunny day. Show the reader how the sun warmed the car seats until they were almost too hot to sit on, especially when Madame Fousois was wearing such a short skirt. This tells us something pertinent about Madame Fousois, especially if she is going to see her lawyer, or one of her college students.

The danger here is that the writer can give too many details. Any details presented in the story should be relevant to the story. We don’t need to know that Madame Fousois ate eggs for breakfast if it doesn’t factor into the story.

If your writing ever seems dull, then work on the details.

© Seth Crossman