Telling details appear in two ways: suddenly, from your unconscious, to tell you what you need to know about your characters; and deliberately, from your conscious writing self, who already knows the character very well and must divine the most vivid way to convey that knowledge to the readers.
How do you deliberately create a telling detail? In our story about Frankie, many telling details came to us suddenly, and dictated the course of the story. This is what happens in first drafts. In later drafts, however, after we have a good idea of who the character is and the shape of the story in which we have placed him, we should look around for places where a telling detail could enrich the prose. Suppose the first draft contains a scene in the apartment just after Frankie has come home from the library. He gets a glass of milk and sits down at the kitchen table with the book. He begins to leaf through the book, marvelling at the magnificent floral specimens. The scene, as written, contains some rich imagery, including pictures of flowers that seem to furl out from the damp pages, and drops of milk sliding along the side of the glass as Frankie sets it down.
Very nice. But wrong, you decide, in retrospect. At this point in the story, Frankie is still in a cocoon; he has not yet decided to do anything about his life. He cannot yet see the possibilities in flowers. The imagery should be dry, not wet. Get rid of the milk. Put him in the parlor instead of the kitchen, and describe the dusty sunlight coming through the windows. Describe the chalky sound of his weight shifting in the chair. The pictures in the book are flat, not furled. Frankie doesn't yet have the imagination to see real flowers from these pictures. The pages are dry, not damp. Perhaps the sound of his fingers on the pages sounds a little like mice in the walls.
Telling detail is part inspiration and part determination. Keep reminding yourself (in the later drafts) what your story is really about, what phases of human understanding your character is passing through, and create the details accordingly.
ENGAGING THE SENSES
In your rush to get an early draft committed to paper, you could be relying too much on the visual aspects of description. Even your "telling" details are probably visual ones: a shard of mirror, a twisted lamppost, a blue eyelid. Remember, you have four other senses to work with: taste, touch, smell, and sound. What your character smells and hears may be even more important than what he sees. A festooned riverboat (a feast for the eyes) might be easy and fun to describe, but the metallic taste in the captain's mouth or the sulphurous odor of the water may be more important to the story.
Look again at the "lazy" beginning from our story about Frankie:
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.
This passage suffers from more than just a lack of telling detail; did you notice that not one of the senses appears here? Frankie—and the reader—hears nothing, smells nothing, tastes nothing, feels nothing, and sees nothing, unless you count the general visual impression suggested by the "orderly" apartment.
Let's continue with Frankie's story as we explore ways of improving description by using sensory details. Frankie checks out his book on flower gardening without saying a word to Andrea. (Let's decide that he does have a stutter.) Humiliated, he slinks out of the library with the book tucked under his arm like something he has stolen.
As it turns out, Frankie does end up stealing the book, because he loves it so much and is too shy to return to the library to renew it. He ignores the overdue notices as he spends his spring and summer creating a garden on the patio of his mother's apartment. By August, there comes a moment when Frankie learns something about gardening:
Frankie studied the bare spots in his garden, perplexed. Except for a stunning pair of day lilies that he'd been assured would grow anyplace, nothing was blooming. The bursts of magenta and blue he'd been counting on since April were nowhere to be found. The delphiniums and hollyhocks—whose show-stopping blossoms he'd been drawn to in the book—were pathetic little sprigs. He glanced up at the weak city sun and realized his mistake: The "full sun" described by the book had never shone on him.
The foregoing passage is adequate for describing Frankie's puzzlement, but a quick scan reveals a missed opportunity. The setting is a garden, for goodness sake, and yet the passage engages none of the senses except the sense of sight. Try this one again, using more sensory detail:
Frankie dug into the soil, breathing its damp aroma. He shaped his fingers around the delphiniums' stunted roots, then sat back, perplexed. Except for a pair of ordinary day lilies that rustled near the railing, nothing was blooming. The delphiniums that had caught his eye on the dry pages of his library book had grown only a few inches, a wizened row of sprigs. Below him, the clamor of the morning commute began in the street, exhaust fumes rising. Frankie squinted up at a weak strand of sunlight muscling its way through the grainy air, just enough of a glimmer to warm his balding head. Wiping his hands on his shirt, he realized his mistake: The "full sun" described by the book had never shone on him.
Notice how the sensory details enrich this passage. The competing sounds in this passage—rustling lilies and morning traffic—contain intimations of both hope and despair. Similarly, the garden's damp scent and the feel of sun on Frankie's forehead are signs of hope that offset the despair of the stunted plants and the city's grainy air. This passage is full of atmosphere that illuminates not only Frankie's bewilderment, but his fragile position. He can follow the promise of his garden (the lilies, the rich soil) or succumb to its failure (weak sunlight, exhaust fumes, pathetic sprigs). Instead of information about Frankie, we now have insights about Frankie, for sensory details are evocative, suggestive, telling. And because we've been seduced into sensing Frankie's world, we now have a stake in how he chooses to move through it. The final line presents a challenge: Will Frankie come down on the side of hope ("full sun") or despair ("never shone on him")?
Sensory details invite readers to take your character's side, to understand what is happening to him, to empathize with his every hope and fear. These details bring breadth and depth to character and setting, informing your readers in ways that are surprising, revealing, and a pleasure to read.