Telling Details

L.L. SamsonLast week I stumbled upon the idea of crafting and inserting “telling details” into your work. I was reading a young readers’ book called Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame which is part of “The Enchanted Attic” series by L.L. Samson. The narrator of the story is a literary-minded janitor. At one point in one the chapters he broke the story to dive into a brief parenthetical about what “telling details are.” (Which, by the way, is a feature of the series. Throughout the story the narrator breaks in to teach the readers about literature and storytelling. My friend is on the marketing team for this book and gave me a copy to check out. Kudos to the author and the team for producing a book like this. Obviously, not only young readers will benefit from the series.)

For some writers I’m sure telling details are common sense and old news. I hadn’t heard much of telling details before last week, so for me, it’s a new idea that (I’m sure) is going to shape my writing for the better. I’d heard the old writer adage “show don’t tell” plenty of times before, but not much beyond that.

Here are a couple of blog posts I read in my brief Google investigation of this concept:

Gotham Writer’s Workshop “Ask the Writer: What is Telling Detail?” – “[A telling detail is] a fundamental unit of fiction that captures the individuality and uniqueness—the very essence—of what is being described. It doesn’t simply inspire an image in the imagination, it also suggest an abstraction, such as meaning or emotion. And it does all of this with brevity.”

The Literary Lab Blog: Telling Detail versus Meaningless Trivia

Earlier today I was working on a new opening scene for the goblin project and wrote this sentence. Keep in mind it’s dialogue from a goblin who is down in a diamond mine:

“I’ll just shoot a diamond in his eye. That would teach him.” Bart smiled wickedly as he spoke. 

When I re-read the scene I really didn’t like these sentences. First of all I used an adverb which I know is always risky business. Secondly (he typed adverbally), I don’t like the idea that Bart’s smile was wicked. Bart is (in essence) a punk kid goblin who thinks he can tackle anything even though he’s still a teenager. I didn’t really capture that part of his character in this first draft.

Enter the telling detail:

“I’ll just shoot a diamond in his eye,” Bart said and puffed up his chest. “That would teach him.” 

So there you have it. A new concept is already improving my writing. (Thank you, L.L. Samson.)

Have you ever thought much about telling details? How has it changed your work?

Little by little, I will get this novel finished.



11 thoughts on “Telling Details

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Me too, Daniel. It’s sometimes the little tweaks that make the most difference. Your comment here reminded me of something. I wrote a post about searching my manuscript for every instance of the word “very” based on something I read in Strunk & White. I highly suggest doing this to your current writing project. Similar to telling details, it’s a little tweak that can make a big difference. Here’s the link:

    1. Andrew Rogers Post author

      Hi Lisa!
      Thanks for a great book. (And tell Bartholomew I think he is an English Lit Jedi.) I’m about halfway through right now and really enjoying it. I’ve got a handful of nephews that are in the perfect age range for this book too. I plan to pass it on to them after I’m finished.

      Back to telling details…I know you’ve written a lot of books in various genres. Do you have any advice for me and the other readers of this blog regarding telling details? Any favorite writers of yours that do this really well?

      I would love to hear your words of wisdom if you’ve got the time.


  1. Pingback: Telling Details: Some Examples « Tell Better Stories

  2. Pingback: Book Review: “Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame” by L.L. Samson « Tell Better Stories

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