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Resources for Writers

Building on Detail in your Fiction by Patricia O’Reilly

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Article by Patricia O’Reilly ©.
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The importance of ‘building on detail’ is a well-known fact when writing fiction. Fiction works best when it is visual, created brush stroke by brush stroke – it’s relatively simple to have an overview of the canvas of the whole story, but not always easy to fill in the details. And yet frequently it is details that lift the story and breathe life into it, so that readers can see its action, characters and locations in their mind’s eye.

Successfully building on detail can make the difference between a story that works, holding the reader riveted, and a story that fails to hold the attention of the reader; it’s the difference between a piece of fiction that drags and writing that dances off the pages.

There are no rules for writing. Certainly no rules for building on detail. But it is helpful to see various details through the eyes of a character, as fictional characters that are well created will view the world from their perspective. For instance Tom walks into a room and sees an up-to-date television set; Mary follows him and takes in the artwork on the walls and bookshelves with the latest titles. Or indeed she may be into technology and Tom into the arts. But the devil is in the detail.

Fiction is nearly always about people, whatever else the story might concern. Originality comes not only from the subject matter but from the writer’s treatment of the subject – in other words writing style and technique and how detail is built. It’s said that a successful short story is more about the way it’s written than what its about.

It helps to build a character sheet for each of the main characters, noting their physical and emotional descriptions, the kind of clothes they wear, as well as their likes and dislikes, perhaps focusing on pulling out an especially defining detail, such as a wart, a limp or a hearty laugh; characters with idiosyncrasies work well; as do characters who say one thing and do the opposite – one of my favorite examples being the plump girl who waves away the box of chocolates, saying, ‘I never touch sugar.’ And left on her own, she devours the top layer.

The action of the storyline can be lifted from flat to dynamic with description of a character in action – a surgeon operating (remember Ian McEwan’s Saturday and the actions of Henry Perowne, a successful neurosurgeon?); a character making of a cup of tea – are their movements – haphazard or cautious? Teabag or tealeaves?  Teapot? Teacosy? Porcelain cup and saucer or a mug with a contemporary logo?

Locations play an important role in fiction, as important as a character – think of James Joyce’s love affair with Dublin and Colin Dexter’s Morse books set in Oxford.  Google maps are a great source of information, but nothing beats primary research.  Colm Toibin has been known to walk down an avenue, paying particular attention to the colours the hall doors were painted. In Listowel during Writers Week, Edna O’Brien was seen going along Church Street, notebook and pen in hand looking into the shop windows and making notes.

Carefully chosen details enhance, remembering that less rather than more is the way to go. Gratuitous details bore readers. Again—context is everything. In some stories, physical descriptions of characters can be kept to a minimum, concentrating instead on the emotions of characters and how they feel and act, using dialogue to advantage.

Using sensuous details contributes to the reader’s intellectual and emotional pleasure. Make liberal use of the five senses – sight, sound, touch, smell and taste. Hearing is known to be the last sense of leave the dying; smell is powerful and evocative of long ago memories; touch can be delicate or rough; taste lends itself to wonderful descriptions – think of the books of Charles Dickens and the plentiful feasts he wrote about – ‘chestnuts on the fire spluttered and cracked noisily’; and sound – from the lapping of waves to music, can be used to maximum effect.

As writers we must take risks and not shy away from writing details that have emotional charge; we must avoid stripping a story of its sensory detail out fear of being regarded as sentimental.  If we’re moved by a detail while writing our first draft, it’s likely our reader will also be moved.  Being sentimental, poignant and revelatory through our writing makes for authentic fiction, and it’s said that all writing is autobiographical.

It’s generally the small details that provide fiction with originality. If you write honestly about the way you view life, about your characters and the situations they find themselves in and the meanings and consequences of those situations and if you stimulate your readers’ senses, making them feel a part of your fictional world, originality will exist in your work.

(c) Patricia O’Reilly

About The First Rose of Tralee

The First Rose of Tralee.
Tralee 1840s. It’s pre-the Great Famine of Ireland.
Daniel O’Connell is holding monster rallies and pushing for Repeal of the 1801 Union.
Mary O’Connor dreams of a life beyond poverty, and being a servant.
William Mulchinock lets go his dreams of being a poet to run the family estates.
When they meet they are dazzled by love.
The young lovers are caught up in the politics of the time.
Can their love survive political turmoil and bridge the great divide between rich and poor?

Order your copy online here.


Patricia O'Reilly, a Dublin-based writer, is passionate about words. Her novel, 'The Interview' is her imagined story of what happened when Bruce Chatwin interviewed Eileen Gray in Paris in 1972. Her other novels, some translated include 'A Type of Beauty, the story of Kathleen Newton (1854-1882'; 'Time & Destiny', the story of Irish Designer Eileen Gray; 'Felicity's Wedding' and 'Once Upon a Summer'. Her non-fiction books are: 'Writing for Success'; 'Working Mothers'; 'Earning Your Living from Home'; 'Writing for the Market' and 'Dying with Love'. She is an award-winning short story writer with stories published in magazines and anthologies.