I’ve been thinking more about “telling details” this week and I thought that it might be helpful to post a few here for all of us to read. I’ve looked through various books on my shelf to find these. If you know of any other great examples off-hand please leave them in the comments section below.
Here’s the passage from chapter 2 of Facing the Hunchback of Notre Dame that got me thinking about this in the first place:
“And we’ll need you to dress fifteenth-century French. I have just the items,” said Augustus as he joined them, arranging his poplin suit just so. He rearranged his silverware to perfection, then picked up the fork.
This excerpt from chapter 1 of Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham is a great example of “the telling detail” at work. Maugham not only inserts telling details about the housekeeper, Miss Fellows, but the narrator references them for the reader. Here’s the conversation between the narrator and Miss Fellows about a phone call that he neither wants to take, nor return:
“Is that the writer?” she asked me.
She gave the telephone a friendly glance.
“Shall I get him?”
“No, thank you.”
“What shall I say if he rings again?”
“Ask him to leave a message.”
“Very good, sir.”
She pursed her lips. She took the empty siphon, swept the room with a look to see that it was tidy, and went out. Miss Fellows was a great novel reader. I was sure that she had read all of Roy’s books. Her disapproval of my casualness suggested that she had read them with admiration.
Here’s an excerpt from chapter 1 of Fahrenheit 451. It’s easy to see that Guy Montag is confident in his work as a fireman:
He hung up his black beetle-colored and shined it; he hung his flameproof jacket neatly; he showered luxuriously, and then, whistling, hands in pockets, walked across the upper floor of the fire station and fell down the hole. At the last moment, when disaster seemed positive, he pulled his hands from his pockets and broke his fall by grasping the golden pole. He slid to a squeaking halt, the heels one inch from the concrete floor downstairs.
Here’s an interesting example from chapter 1 of Goblin Quest by Jim C. Hines. In this scene a large mean goblin captain (Porak) is bullying and tricking a younger weaker goblin to join his patrol that night. Notice how the telling detail is use and then interpreted for the reader. I think this is similar to how Maugham explained Miss Fellows’ above:
“Glory, fighting, and bloodshed.” The goblins puffed up like rock lizards competing for a mate. Porak smiled, a warning sign if ever there was one. “We want you to come along on patrol.”
As I’ve worked on my manuscript for the goblin project this week I’ve been focusing on inserting telling details along the way. I’m not trying to overdo it, of course, but I am finding that my manuscript lacks in this area. My plan now is to go into every major dialogue sequence in my story and see where I can re-write a sentence or two and insert telling details if they are needed.