Last night, my cat George ran off into the house next to mine and wouldn’t come back, so I grabbed my flip-flops and umbrella, went over there, and got him.
Boring, isn’t it?
Technically the above is a story, but it’s a skeleton. There’s nothing to grab onto. So let’s add some detail– or rather, let’s add the kind of detail that often gets sprinkled in by novice writers.
On Monday night, my cat George, who’s black and white with yellow eyes, ran into the abandoned house next to the duplex where I live. He wouldn’t come back when I called, so I grabbed my white flip-flops and my white-and-blue umbrella, went out into the rain, and got him off the porch of the creepy old house.
These are all technically details, but they don’t actually tell you anything. I’ve noticed all too often that writers get caught up with menial details and forgetting about significant ones. This story isn’t changed just because you know the color of my flip-flops or the color of George’s eyes. It doesn’t help you to know my shoe size or the day of the week.
When we talk about details, what we’re asking for are significant details: details that change the context, that add things to the story on multiple levels.
I could tell you how my feet slipped and slid in my flip-flops, and how even the umbrella didn’t do much against the thunderstorm.
I could tell you that it was two in the morning, when the bright paint-jobs of the inhabited houses lost their glamour and the dozens of ancient foreclosed-upon houses seemed to stretch out and open the maws of their boarded up front porches. Or how that night, when I peered at it through the rain on this particular night, I caught a glimmer of light that shouldn’t have been there.
I could tell you that a few weeks ago the scent of rotting meat had wafted over my porch, and upon investigating, a brave neighbor found the mangled body of some small animal in the tall grass– he could no longer tell if it had once been cat, dog or raccoon.
I could tell you that this particular house was frequently home to squatters, and news reports of face-eating “bath-salt zombies” played in my mind as I called in vain for my cat to return.
I could tell you that George is more loyal than most dogs I’ve known– that he follows me around the yard when I garden, and always comes when I call, even if I wander off– and he wouldn’t budge when I called out to him. I could tell you how I found him cowering on the edge of the front porch of the abandoned house, unwilling to venture back into the rain, but unwilling to go deeper inside. Or how, when I touched his damp fur, he stared up at me with big wide eyes and immediately slunk to safety against my ankles.
These are details that add context and mood. They’re less about what the event looked like, and more about how it feels.
Now, this doesn’t exclude describing a thing’s color scheme or the way it looks– but it does invite you to be more judicious about which aspects you choose to describe.
For example, JK Rowling makes a point of describing Harry Potter’s appearance: his mother’s bright green eyes, his father’s unruly black hair, scrawny from his time with the Dursleys, and a lightning-shaped scar from his encounter with Voldemort. Each of those details tells you more about them, and most of them become plot-relevant later on. In fact, most of the details in the Harry Potter series are relevant later on, even if it’s just to a minor character’s subplot.