Convincing Detail: Making Readers Believe

by Charnell Peters

Jef Mallett, creator and artist of the comic Frazz, said, “Writing well means never having to say, ‘I guess you had to be there.’”

We’ve all had those moments, right? We experience something hilarious and try to explain it to people later, only to find that they aren’t convinced it was really that funny. We get polite smiles or a few sympathetic laughs, but we’ve failed to paint the picture necessary for drawing people into the experience. “I guess you had to be there,” we say.

Thankfully, we don’t have to do that in writing if we’re writing well. We have the opportunity to tell a convincing story that pulls people into wholeheartedly believing the circumstances of the fiction.

Authors don’t write scenes and then caption the end with, “Well, the situation was somber in my head, but you get the point.” Of course not! We feel with and for the characters. We experience the atmosphere in our minds.

How do we convince people of our own stories? How can we create this type of experience for our readers? We use great details. Here are some questions to ask yourself when creating detail:

  •         Am I using the best possible details or just describing random things that don’t contribute to the story or atmosphere?
  •         Am I engaging all 5 of the readers’ senses?
  •         Can I weave this detail in and out of action to move the story forward?
  •         How can I use characterization as detail?
  •         Can I use a simile to get the point across? 

These questions are just a few that we could be asking as we write and edit. Stephen King probably asked himself plenty of these questions when crafting his short story, “The Man in the Black Suit.” King uses detail so well that I never doubted for a second that the nine year old narrator met the Devil in the woods. I believed every terrifying word, right down to the smell of sulfur emanating from his body.

Here’s a passage from that short story: 

He was wearing a black three-piece suit, and I knew right away that he was not a human being, because his eyes were the orangey red of flames in a woodstove. I don’t mean just the irises, because he had no irises, and no pupils, and certainly no whites. His eyes were completely orange–an orange that shifted and flickered. And it’s really too late not to say exactly what I mean, isn’t it? He was on fire inside, and his eyes were like the little isinglass portholes you sometimes see in stove doors.

In just a few lines we get a solid description of this man and the nature of his being. It doesn’t take much, just some carefully crafted detail to make us believe he’s truly supernatural.

As you work on your fiction, think about the detail you could use to draw the reader into the story. What peculiarities are present in the world and the people you’ve created? Use those to suck the reader into believing they really were there. While you’re at it, why not share some of your own strategies with us in the comments?

Charnell Peters is a junior Professional Writing major. This semester, she’s serving as  one of our Art of Writing moderators.

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