Today’s readers want plot*. They want to be a part of the story, and the writer helps to establish this connection through the plot’s physical detail.
Details | Physical description is the primary way to draw a reader in to your story. Sensory detail allows the reader to experience the story rather than simply being told the story. The old saw “show don’t tell” is true to an extent, more so today than in the past perhaps, because readers want contact with the story and not be mired in details. What the reader and writer share, and therefore how they can make contact with one another and share the experience, is through the senses.
Choice | The choice for a writer makes is how much detail and what kinds. Regardless, it is all about getting your reader to believe the story is “happening right in front of them,” writes Steven Schoen. If the fiction writer is able to convince readers of the story’s “reality,” whatever that may be, the writer has provided the reader with a gift. The gift, through sensory detail, allows the reader to decide for themselves via the sufficient and specific detail, a story’s authenticity and believability.
Writers therefore must choose carefully the details she wants the reader to have, in order to reach the conclusion she intends. That’s key. Calibration of detail be it in a work of genre or one with literary intentions is the backbone of contemporary fiction. Fundamentally, detail keeps or loses readers.
Details separate the great writers from the merely good.
Shirley lied as a professional duty. But of course she somehow created truth. She chose the best side of the story, shaped and polished it, not so it was perfect, but so it was real. She once told me once: ‘Things have to be true in the world of one’s characters, they have to be true in that world, have to happen there.’ She did not work for the census or take legal deposition, but she ferreted out useful truths all the same.
— Susan Scarf Mitchell Shirley: a novel which is the story of a young mother’s friendship with the writer Shirley Jackson.
* Just why that is, and why some writers should simply ignore the fashion will be the subject of a future post