Lesson Two: Life Is in the Details

Why do we write? Sometimes we write to explain how to perform a task—as I am doing now with this lesson on using details. Sometimes we write to persuade—letters to the newspaper editor about outrageous gas prices, research papers for Ms. Cameron’s 5th period Biology class, entire books on why we need to stop polluting the environment. Sometimes we write to tell a story, real or imaginary—your first trip to the ocean, say, or the battle between an evil unicorn and the elfish princess nobody trusted.

No matter what our motivation or mode of writing, we are writing about life—it’s messiness and wonder and chaos and shabbiness and beauty. We try to get at the truth of things. Even more, we don’t simply uncover the truth but also put the truth as we see it into words and images for others to ponder.

As you reread your journal entries, you might get frustrated because your words seem like a bland stand-in for what was so vivid and alive in your imagination.

Take this for example:

I went to science class and we had to dissect frogs. It was gross. I felt so bad for the frog, and all I could think was why do animals have to suffer in order for us to have stupid biology class?

There is nothing wrong with this paragraph. We know what happened and what the writer feels about dissecting frogs. But there is no energy here. It is flat. We need something to bring it to life so that the reader finds herself right there in that classroom, shuddering and queasy and heavy of heart. How do we do that? We put ourselves into the scene and we look around. We sniff the air. We run our fingers over surfaces . We listen. And then we write it down—all the details—because that is where life is, both in our daily circumstances and in our writing.

Natalie Golberg says, “Life is so rich, if you can write down the details of the way things were and are, you hardly need anything else.” (WRITING DOWN THE BONES, page 41)

This is a lesson for anybody. Provide truthful and vivid details, and the reader lives the scene, not just reads about it second-hand. This is true even in expository writing such as this piece (I’m explaining the use of detail), or persuasive pieces (a picture or example is worth a thousand angry words).

So, we use all our senses. Sight. Sound. Smell. Touch. Taste. We sit down with our notebook and reread our journal entry. We put it down and let our mind go back to that space and we slooooowww down and take note of all our senses. We pick up our pen and go to a fresh sheet of paper and we add details.

Maybe we come up with something like this:

I loiter in the hallway outside Room 15, slipping through the doorway at the last possible second when the bell rings. The sharp chemical stench of formaldehyde hangs heavy in the room, inescapable. When I try breathing through my nose, I can taste the smell on the tip of my tongue.

I stare at the frog lying dead and still on top of the black countertop of my workstation. Gross! I reach out and slide a tentative finger along its back. The skin is cold and slimy and weirdly stiff. I shudder. Why do animals have to suffer for us to have this stupid biology class, anyway?

The second draft is much more detailed. The character doesn’t just go to class, she “loiters” and slips through the doorway. It is not just science class, but science class in Room 15. We can smell, even taste, the formaldehyde used to preserve the frog. The character is much more alive when we hear her inner thought –“Gross!”—rather than being told “It was gross.” We feel the cold and slimy and stiff skin. We know the character feels repelled, because she shudders. Again, we hear her inner thought about animals suffering rather than being told she feels this way. Details make this a much stronger piece of writing.

Now what if we want to turn this into a real scene? We would add even more details, some dialogue, and we could even begin to develop a few secondary characters:

I loiter in the hallway outside Room 15, slipping through the doorway at the last possible second when the bell rings. The sharp chemical stench of formaldehyde hangs heavy in the room, inescapable. When I try breathing through my nose, I can taste the smell on the tip of my tongue. Dissecting day.

‘Larrisa Boucher! Put that knife down before someone gets hurt!’ From her perch behind the desk, Ms. Cameron screeches at a five-foot ten inch basketball player pretending to threaten her teammate, Brandi Ellerby, with the silver dissecting tool. The Lady Hawks goofing off at the corner station snicker and shuffle in a loose clump of sharp elbows, hooded sweatshirts, Amazonian legs. I shoot them a look, eyes narrowed. Mutants.

A feel a nudge at my elbow. ‘Are you okay?’ Angela Greer whispers, breath minty from her gum. ‘You look kinda pale.’ Her long, orange hair brushes my elbow.

Shaking my head, I say, ‘I don’t think I can do this.’

Angela leans closer. ‘You have to. If you don’t bring up your grade in Biology, you won’t be allowed to go to drama camp with me this summer.’

‘I know, I know!’ Holding my breath, I glance down.

There it is. The frog.

Reaching out, I slide a tentative finger along its back. The skin is cold and slimy and weirdly stiff. Not like a real frog. Nothing like.

I remember when I was a kid how my cousin and I would walk down to the stream on summer mornings and catch them–big, green croakers hiding close to the muddy bottom among the cattails. We’d plunge our hands into the cool water and grab one by his leg. They were slimy then, too, but in a live way, wiggly. This frog is dead. And I have to cut him open. It isn’t fair, I think, stomach hollow and queasy. Why do animals have to suffer for us to have this stupid biology class, anyway?

In the detailed example, the story has come to life. We’ve turned a short, bland paragraph into a scene that shows rather than tells the reader about the character’s attitudes toward dissection and using animals for scientific study. We know the main character is contemptuous of the basketball players by the way she thinks of them as “mutants” and using the word “sniggering” rather than “talking.”
We know she feels her teacher is unpleasantly birdlike—comparing her voice to a “screech” and her “perch” at her desk, like an owl or a hawk, waiting to swoop down on the students. We even get some background information on the character when she remembers catching frogs with her cousin. We know our character likes drama and has a friend named Angela.

Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is one of those phrases you hear all the time in writing classes, articles, and workshops. Basically, we are talking about scene vs. narration. Scene shows. Narration tells. Both are good and necessary tools for effective writing.

You could write an entire piece using narration. Essays often are. But narration can be made more interesting and effective with vivid details. Compare the following sentences:

“I spent my morning listening to music, drinking coffee, and writing.”

“I whiled away my Sunday morning listening to haunting Celtic music, sipping cup after cup of creamy cinnamon-hazelnut coffee, and tapping out a few pages of the new story percolating in my head.”

Nothing really happens here; I’m merely telling about my morning. The vivid details make the writing much more lively and interesting, though.

A piece could also be written almost completely with scene—although scene usually has same narration imbedded in it. For now, it will be enough for you to capture the details of your story or scene or narrative, but if you are looking for a challenge in a whole piece, try mixing it up a bit. In a story or personal narrative (memoir or letter or journal entry, etc.), narration moves the reader from one scene to the next.

Experiment. Take a journal entry of your own and analyze it. Are there pages of narration and very few scenes, or none? Try adding a few. Are there many scenes but very little blocks of description or “telling” about a person, place, time passing, etc.? Try adding some.

A Few Words About Description

Description and details. At first we might think these are the same thing. But really description depends on details. We use details to describe characters, setting, events. Sometimes writers say, “I just have a hard time with description. It doesn’t come easily for me.” Other writers have trouble creating well-rounded characters or snappy dialogue. If description is hard for you, that’s okay. Just stretch for it, a little bit at a time.

Without description, you story hangs in a blank space. We know people are talking, but we can’t see them. Or we see them but they are surrounded by white windowless walls, cushiony padding on the floor muffling sound, a ventilation system that sterilizes the air free of scent.

In order to make our stories come alive, we need to see, touch, taste, smell, and hear. For practice, take a journal entry and rewrite all or part of it, expanding it into a story (real or imaginary) with a vividly drawn setting and characters with some telling details.

Simile and Metaphor

One way to make your writing more vivid is to use figurative language. Figurative language is a comparison between one thing and something else. A trope is a type of figurative language where words are used in a different sense from their original meaning. (Some people call this a figure of speech. Others, a figure of thought. I’m going to use figure of speech because that is probably how middle and high school teachers will refer to tropes.)

So a trope uses language to transform an image/word in the reader’s mind from one meaning to another. Two familiar tropes are simile and metaphor. These basically compare one thing to another. Similes use “like” or “as,” creating more of a distance between the two meanings or images. Metaphors are more direct, saying one thing is the other thing, not just similar to it.

But let’s just start with that trope thing. What do I mean when I say words are used in a different sense from their original meaning? I think this means that your mind makes a transformation from one image to another by using words in a NOT literal sense. Let’s take an example.

The sky is blue.

What do you see in your head? A regular blue sky, right? Now add a simile.

The sky was like a soft, blue blanket spread over plain.

Ah, now we are picturing a blanket. The “sky” is no longer a regular old sky. In our minds, it is now “like” a “blanket.” The word “blanket” does not mean a LITERAL blanket made of woven fibers… it is being used in a different sense. A covering on a bed now becomes a covering over a plain. There are connotations that go along with blanket. Blankets are warm. Blankets are comforting. Blankets can swaddle you and make you feel safe. When we compare the sky to a blanket, all those connotation are added in.

Consider the difference if we use the following metaphor (no “like” or “as”):

The sky was hammered steel over the plain.

Much different connotation, right? And more vivid than simply writing, “The sky was gray over the plain.” Hammered steel has been transformed from something hard and solid (its original meaning) into something permeable–air in the sky. The sky, in turn, has become something rather more solid and heavy in our thoughts. It’s like magic going on in our brains!

Try using simile and metaphor in your writing this week. You’ll be amazed at how much more alive and exciting your journal entries will be…brightly colored rain-forest birds compared to simple brown sparrows. (See what I did there? Magic!)

Literary Terms Of The Week

Description—Using details to re-create sensory impressions of persons, places, things.
Narration—Kind of writing that tells a story.
Scene—Kind of writing that shows a story.
Setting—The place where the story happens.
Character—Persons, animals, things that show up in a story.
Figurative Language—Comparison between different things.
Figure of Speech—Type of figurative language where words are used in a different sense from their original meaning, such as simile and metaphor.
Trope—Figure of speech (or thought).
Metaphor—Trope comparing things without the use of “like” or “as.”
Simile—Trope comparing things using “like” or “as.”


Essential Literary Terms by Sharon Hamilton, Phd.; W.W. Norton & Co.
Description by Monica Wood; Writer’s Digest Books.
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg; Shambhala Extended Edition

Website for literary terms: Everything English.com http://library.thinkquest.org/23846/library/terms/

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