It’s all in the Details: The Importance of Naming Things, Using Sensory Description, and Giving Specific Examples
March 17, 2021 § 8 Comments
By Shuly Xóchitl Cawood
Let’s say I want to tell you about my hometown. What if I told you it’s small and the downtown is on two streets and it has stores and places to eat? Are you getting a picture in your head? Probably not.
What if instead I told you the town’s name is Yellow Springs, and the downtown stretches across Xenia Avenue and Dayton Street, with a one-block street called Short Street? If you’re hungry, you can eat at Ye Olde Trail Tavern or the Wind’s Cafe or order at the deli counter at Current Cuisine (I love their Broccoli Moroccan Salad with peanuts and raisins) or head to the Sunrise Cafe (try their Super Veggie Scramble for brunch or their Thai Peanut Tofu for dinner—and take the wooden booth at the front that has a big window looking out on Xenia Avenue). For dessert, walk over to the Corner Cone and order a coconut-flavored soft-serve ice cream cone—vegan, even—at the window and sit outside on the patio. Want to shop? For groceries, Tom’s Market or Starflower Natural Foods. For clothes, Wildflower Boutique or Kismet. And for gifts, Asanda Imports, Urban Handmade, Yellow Springs Pottery, Dark Star Books & Comics or Epic Book Shop, or pick out an eeBoo jigsaw puzzle at the Yellow Springs Toy Company, or try on Birkenstocks and smell the incense at Earth Rose. What if I told you there are places to hike nearby? What if instead I named them—Glen Helen, just a few blocks from town, or Clifton Gorge?
Are you getting a sense of my town now?
Naming things can make a difference. Specifying. Providing details. If I said I grew up in a house in town, you might come up with some idea in your imagination of what that place looked like. But let me tell you more: I grew up in a house that is a remodeled barn, and it smells like cedar as soon as you walk in. Upstairs is a huge picture window that lets in the sky but also the summer sun, which beats into the room and heats it up. Downstairs stays cool, and in the dining room where there used to be carpet the color of wild rice, now the floor is tiled—blue and yellow and brown—and a set of French doors (honey-colored wood with big panes of beveled glass) leads from the dining room to the den. Even though the house is in town, when you step into the yard, what you hear is birdsong—of black-capped chickadees, cardinals, house finches. The yard has peppermint plants all along the fence, a maple tree canopying the center of the yard, blue spruces near the green shed, and circles of flowers for all seasons: purple crocuses, daffodils, coreopsis, autumn sedum, and a bunch of light-pink peonies in the far back.
What about now? Do you have at least a sense of the place I am trying to describe?
When writing our stories, details are key because our own lives are so vivid and clear to us—we forget we need to help the reader experience it as we do. We need to take the reader with us. We need to recreate it on the page.
But being specific means more than just details and description and naming things. It also means giving examples of what we are trying to convey. I took a memoir class while I was writing my memoir, The Going and Goodbye, and the chapter I had turned in described someone I had dated: “He was soft-faced, thick-haired, broad-shouldered. His voice was deep and calm enough to steady me in its tone. Everything about him said he was substantial and sturdy, but his face could close unexpectedly, like a moon obscured by a rush of clouds plumed from cold temperatures.” I was trying to say he could become angry with me at times when I didn’t expect it. Can you give an example?, the teacher asked me. I sure could, as I had many examples, but it hadn’t occurred to me to put any of them into the chapter. I added this: “One time, he had arrived at a bicycle race frustrated and scowling because he had spent too long searching for me and our friends through the crowds, though I had told him we were standing by the water tower. When he asked if I had been watching for him and I could not say yes—though I knew that was the only right answer—he turned away and ignored me for the rest of the race but talked and laughed with everyone else.” Adding this example not only helped the reader understand the person about whom I was writing, but it also helped the reader understand me.
Now, I try to teach this to my students—give examples when it’s important, name things that will help give context to the reader, use sensory description to convey a sense of place and to build an emotional landscape. I don’t often have details and specifics in my first drafts—or at least, not enough—but in my second and third and subsequent drafts, I add them when they matter.
Details make a story come alive; details fill in the gaps; details do so much of the work if we just remember to let them.
Shuly Xóchitl Cawood is the author of The Going and Goodbye: a memoir and the short story collection, A Small Thing to Want. Her latest book is a poetry collection, Trouble Can Be So Beautiful at the Beginning, winner of the Adrienne Bond Award for Poetry. Learn more at www.shulycawood.com.