Sometimes it takes only one or two details to light up a character for your readers. These precise, illuminating finds are the "telling" details of fiction, for they stretch beyond mere observation to give the readers a larger, richer sense of character or place. The old man's carefully parted hair suggests that he has not totally given up. The tinny clatter of cheap crockery implies that the restaurateur has fallen on hard times. The sullen teenager's one-shouldered shrug connotes indifference tinged with contempt.
This kind of detail makes fiction more than what-happens-next storytelling. It makes description more than an account. The right details, inserted at the right times, allow your readers access to a character's inner landscape, to his or her peculiarities, fears, and compulsions that cannot be easily explained. It is one thing to explain to your readers that a character is fearful, quite another to describe the way she shrinks from human touch.
Imagine that you are writing a story about a shy, middle-aged man named Frankie. All his life Frankie has been sheltered by his mother, who has recently died. Your story is about Frankie's struggle to define a life for himself. Picking up the story about two weeks into Frankie's plight, you could begin this way:
Everything was his now: the bank account, his mother's apartment on Lexington, the fake mantel on which her heartbreaking shepherdess figurines went about their work.
Notice how the telling details in this opening sentence work together. In the first part of the sentence, we are introduced to someone whose mother has died and left some conventional things—money and an apartment. With only these details, we don't know how Frankie feels about his loss; for all we know he could have killed the old lady himself. But the sentence goes on to describe the fake mantel and the shepherdess figurines, "telling" details that soften the harsh introduction of property and money. We get a sense of an orderly apartment in which life was gentle. We have all seen those figurines, in the parlors of our grandmothers or in the windows of the five-and-dime. The way those figurines are described gives us two insights. One: that the shepherdesses are "heartbreaking" implies that Frankie is himself heartbroken; two: that the shepherdesses are going "about their work" implies that Frankie understands, however unconsciously, that he, too, must go on. In one opening line you have given your readers a setting, a character, and an attitude. You have opened the door not to a story, but to an entire world.
Openings like this one depend on your attention to detail. This attention requires careful work that often means paring an entire paragraph to one sentence. After you delete all the mundane, irrelevant information, you might have very little left and have to start again from scratch. The lazy way into this story would read something like this:
Frankie's mother had died two weeks ago, leaving him everything she owned. He was heartbroken and scared, knowing he would miss his mother and the gentle life he'd led inside the walls of her orderly little apartment on Lexington. Yet on some level he realized that life must go on.
Do you see how much vitality you've lost by offering information rather than detail?
HOW DETAILS DRIVE THE STORY
At certain junctures, especially in a first draft, you may stumble across a detail that is so telling to you that it changes the direction of your story. After giving the readers a bit more about Frankie and his circumstances, let's say you decide to send him to the library, where he sees Andrea, the assistant librarian whom he's long admired from afar. He selects a book from the stacks and prepares to take it to the circulation desk. Which book? Here is the next telling detail. What if he checks out Oliver Twist? What about How to Plant a Flower Garden? What about Oriental Sex Secrets? For reasons you don't fully recognize yet yourself, you decide that How to Plant a Flower Garden is Frankie's choice. At this point it simply feels right. This choice is important not only because it reveals something about Frankie, but because it dictates where the story is going next.
Recognizing the junctures at which the telling detail is important will help you not only to write in crisp, evocative prose, but also to define your story. How do you recognize these junctures? Unfortunately, there are no rules for intuition, but you might notice that telling details crop up most often when the description addresses itself to one of two areas: a character's immediate surroundings or a character's decision to do something. Certainly the description of Frankie's mother's apartment (the character's immediate surroundings) engages the readers not with a character named Frankie, but with a certain kind of character named Frankie. Similarly, Frankie's choice of books (the character's decision to do something) allows the story to take not only a turn, but a certain kind of turn. If Frankie puts the garden book back on the shelf and takes the sex book instead, then your story has to head down a different path altogether. And if the story had opened with a description of bars on the windows instead of shepherdesses on the mantel, you would have an entirely different Frankie to work with.
The Frankie you have to contend with now, however, is not concerned with bars on windows. He is nervous about checking the book out himself; his mother had always performed this task for him. You can describe his discomfort in many ways. For starters, you can come right out and tell the readers what Frankie is feeling:
Frankie wasn't even sure how to go about checking out a book. Was his library card still current? How much would he have to say? Perhaps he could get away with smiling his way through it; his mother always said his smile was darling.
The interior monologue ("Was his library card still current . . .") is nice, and as good a way as any to describe what Frankie is feeling. It's not until the final line, however, that we get the jolt of recognition that comes with just the right detail. That Frankie, a middle-aged man, is comforted by remembering that his mother always thought his smile was "darling" tells us volumes about his helplessness, his dependency, and his too-close relationship with his mother. You might try a little of that same subtlety in the sentences leading up to that final revelation:
Frankie took his place at the back of the line and set his eyes on the fellow in front of him. A nice-looking boy (college student, Frankie decided), shirt collar turned up, jeans ripped fashionably at the knee. His three books, held casually against one hip, seemed stylish somehow, part of the outfit. Frankie watched him with the precision of a cat as the line dwindled, bringing him nearer to Andrea. Finally it was the boy's turn; he exchanged a few pleasantries with Andrea, his words not so much spoken as poured. Frankie turned to the woman behind him and offered her his place, then waited once again at the line's end, squinting under the harsh fluorescent light. Maybe he could simply smile through the transaction. His mother always said his smile was darling.
This version is longer, but more precise. In the first version the details are few and all we know is that Frankie is generally worried about speaking to Andrea. In the second, you invent someone for Frankie to compare himself to, and the way Frankie views this boy is very telling. By describing how the college kid looks, you are also implying that Frankie must look exactly the opposite, and also that Frankie sees him as competition for Andrea's interest. Here's a twist you hadn't thought of until you began to describe the college boy in the kind of detail that reflects back on Frankie. Also, the observation that the boy's words seem "poured" lets us in on Frankie's fear of how his own words will sound. Perhaps Frankie has a good reason for not wanting to speak? An accent? A stutter? You're learning something about a character of your own invention as your careful details carry you forward. Revelations of this kind become more common as your powers of observation become more precise.
Like most writers, you probably begin a first draft with only a general idea of what is going to happen. The telling detail can be your compass, your way of navigating through a story, guiding your character down one path at the expense of another. Let's say you're writing a story about a lonely office worker who adopts a litter of puppies. While you're describing your main character, out pops a description of her hair, "so silver it looks cold." You like it—but you've got a problem: a woman with cold hair doesn't sound like the puppy-loving type. Therefore the litter of puppies you've left at her office door poses a dilemma quite different from the one you originally envisioned. The story was going to be about a woman's struggle to keep seven puppies; now the story is going to be about a woman's struggle to get rid of seven puppies. The telling detail is a joy to the appreciative reader, but to you, the writer, it is also a valuable doorway through which you enter the mysterious inner chambers of your own characters' lives.