Tuesday, May 17, 2011

It's All in the Details

by Rachael Phillips

Are you a detail person? If we're speaking of knowing what to do with multiple dinner forks or making reservations before entering the front door of a hotel or airplane, I'm not. But I have learned in novel writing that while, as one dictionary states, details function as small, subordinate parts of a whole, another definition tells us these collectively constitute a work of art.

Details also can obliterate the work of art.

To a writer whose vision encompasses only the glorious dimensions of her heroine's character or her novel's teeth- and heart-grinding conflicts, which door the heroine uses for a dramatic exit appears irrelevant--until a prospective agent notices that, given earlier information, that particular door leads not to sorrowful moon-kissed paths of unrequited love, but to the junky shag-rugged '70s basement.

I mention this example because in my fiction, as in real life, I ignore spatial concepts, possess no sense of direction and occasionally defy gravity. My early drafts force characters to stoke fires in homes without fireplaces and send them through windows instead of doors. They drive to Chicago by way of Miami and frequently make left turns through barns. (How do I explain to an editor that I killed off a character who wasn't supposed to die?) And though I do not write sci-fi, my heroines and heroes show a marked tendency to float when no water or ballroom dancing are involved.

My solution: I draw crude house plans and furniture/yard/estate layouts and frequently study maps. I've considered installing a GPS in every story. And I chain my characters to sofas.

Readers do not not react well when Christmas arrives late, particularly in Christmas novella collections. Time issues, in general, must make sense. Cicadas should chirp during appropriate months; socks can't be knitted in one hour. If the heroine in my first novella hadn't stuck a Christmas cactus in a closet at the right point during its life cycle, the plant would not have bloomed at a critical point in the story, and its weighty symbolism [gasp!] would have been lost.

My solution: Print off a calendar and schedule plot events on it. I've never liked planners--but avoiding one may result in a lady character's 21-month pregnancy.

In editing others' manuscripts, I often encounter characters who switch eye color. Readers who fell in love with the emerald-eyed hero in chapter five feel betrayed when his midnight black orbs flash during chapter nine. I struggle less with character details than logistics in my novels, but occasionally I discover three walk-ons who all work as third-grade teachers, wear zebra socks and suffer from a tic.

My solution: I include all characters, named and unnamed, on a character sheet, plus details about each--physical characteristics, relationship to main characters and the reason for their existence. If no reason emerges, I may have to beam this superfluous character out of my novel. Editors, agents and readers are detail people, even if I am not.

How about you? How do you avoid the eye color switch?


  1. This is so true. I have "character sheets" that use from game systems that use (which usually have lots of different spots for details about your characters). They ususally have more slots than I can fill (or use), but force me to think about other things about my characters (that could come in handy in the story).

  2. Great post,Rachael. Thanks. I've never changed eye color of a character, but I did change the name of a cat once (from Sox to Buttons), and sure enough, one of my readers (who has five cats), picked right up on it. Writing a series has proven a challenge the deeper I get into it. You're right that it's all in the details. I have a detailed, chronological timeline. Once my characters started having children, it got a little tricky. It's not like a soap opera where a child is an infant for a few months and then all of a sudden - poof! - they're a rebellious teen while their parents don't age a day. Readers are accepting, but we need to make sure to do the best job we can of getting it right. Blessings!

  3. Rachael, you always make me laugh. I don't know where I'd be without my floor plans, character pictures/info, and timelines. Actually, I do know. I'd be sleeping in the kitchen two days before I got there.

  4. Going over it so many times you'd know in a heartbeat, or link it with some other characteristic so that if you mess up, you'll feel it right away. Yes, I'm a detail person, especially details that should have been researched better...

  5. I'd like to float out something about character descriptions. The first writing book I read - How to Write and Sell a Christian Novel by Gilbert Morris - suggested having a detailed character description down to what kind of nose they have. The second writing book I read - Writing for the Soul by Jerry Jenkins - mentions the author only gives minimal descriptions so the reader has the privilege of creating his/her own picture of what the character looks like. (Though in one series, I pictured a couple as being African American in the first book and noticed in the second that he's a typical Texan and she has red hair and green eyes.)

    As for character sheets, I actually created my own, because I know what I'm most apt to include in the story about the character.


  6. Hey all, Sorry I've not replied--I've been caring for my elderly parents in Louisiana back in the piney woods where the Internet never goes :-) Thanks for the comments! And may all our details agree!