Sunday, December 1, 2013

Oh, Those Details!

This post first ran on Sunday, September 21, 2008.

There are so many things to think about when you're writing a book--plot, characters, POV, opening hooks, chapter hooks, dialogue, narrative, show-don't tell, and on and on. Well, here's one more--the mood of the story.

I'm not talking genre, like romance, mystery, horror, suspense, etc. A Romance can be eerie and gothic. Horror can be humorous. A Thriller can be tongue-in-cheek. By mood, I'm talking atmosphere of the book.

Think about the atmosphere you want to create for the plot, the characters, the setting. Then establish that mood through your use of details, the way you put words and sentences together, your use of the senses.

A character walks down a long hallway, dark and quiet. A clock sounds. Is it the deep bass bonging of a grandfather clock? Or is it the shrill clucking of a coo-coo clock?

The setting of a scene is a lawyer's office. How do you, as the writer, furnish the room? Big, heavy furniture; lots of wood; a Tiffany desk lamp? Is that all? Or is there, hidden among the knick-knacks, a worn-leather book on ancient incantations? One thing that throws the scene, the atmosphere, off-kilter.

Your character goes to church. What kind of church is it? You can't just say it's a big fancy church--you have to show us. And what you show us about this church sets the mood. Do we see the long pews, the floor-to-ceiling stained glass windows? Do we see a rubber duckie floating in the baptismal tank? Is the choir dressed in royal blue with white collars, or ill-fitting faded purple robes? Does conversation come to a deadly stop when a certain character enters? Does a cell phone ring during the sermon and we see a head of curly brown hair slide down in the pew?

Details, details. Sometimes you put those details in as you write. Sometimes you see where they’re needed as you’re editing. You realize you can’t see the scene or you can’t envision an object or a room – not based on what’s on the paper. So you have to put in the details. And you have to put in the right amount of details. Not so much that your readers skip to the next paragraph. But not so few that they don’t feel as if they’re in the story.

So think about the details as you edit. Make them count.

Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and writer. You can visit her website and blog, follow her on Twitter, or join her newsletter, Doing It Write.
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  1. Yes, the devil is in the details.
    Some authors pour out details like cloudbursts.

    I'm the opposite. Dialogue seems so much easier for me. I have to really concentrate to get the details down right so the reader can tell what's in my mind.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Exactly what I needed to be reminded of as I move into this next rewrite! The mood/atmosphere of a story should also tie into its theme and symbolism.

  3. Good points here, Helen. I especially like the fact that you encourage writers to add details in small doses as opposed to the "we are going to pause the story now to describe a room" approach.

  4. Really great observations. Thank you Morgan, LJ and Maryann.

    Probably the best part about posting is hearing from others. You get a much fuller picture when others give their 2 cents!


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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