As writers, we like to think big. We like the idea of the brave knight sweeping in on his gryphon, flaming sword in hand, to slay the dragon threatening the castle. Or the rugged detective bursting into the lair of the drug lord to make a criminal empire collapse. Or the grieving mother finally coming to terms with the death of her son and moving on with her life.
But there needs to be more substance to the stories. “The dragon attacked the castle, and the knight killed it. The end.” There isn’t a lot to that tale, and it would quickly be forgettable. The readers want more than just a satisfying ending. They demand more. They want to be immersed in the worlds that we create. Sometimes, the best way to do that is to go into seemingly inconsequential details.
For example, consider the writings of Brian Jacques, who created the Redwall series. I remember reading an interview with the author years ago where he discussed part of his inspiration in writing the books. He recalled going through other novels, where it mentioned that the characters ate… but what? It bothered Jacques not to know. What were they eating? How did it taste? He wanted details! So when he started writing the Redwall series, he didn’t want to fall into the same trap. His books often have entire chapters dedicated to the preparation and consumption of elaborate feasts. What did these have to do with the main plot? Not a whole lot – but it served to engage the readers into the world of mice and badgers. It even led to the publication of a cookbook based on the Redwall series and what the diminutive inhabitants ate.
Another example can be found in the video game “Avernum: Escape from the Pit,” by Seattle-based Spiderweb Software. Near the starting area is a tremendous cave with a dragon named Motrax. This dragon likes humans and talking with them, and in return, the humans can learn from him. However, Motrax has two other residents in his cave – a pair of cats. It’s mentioned that Motrax likes cats and enjoys their furry companionship. This little tidbit has nothing to do with the rest of the storyline, but it’s an amusing quirk to a great big, scary, scaly dragon.
So, fellow writers, think about how you can incorporate minor details into your characters and works. Perhaps you’re writing about an iconic fashion designer who has a secret love of Babylon 5. Or maybe a space traveler who chews on his nails when he gets nervous.
It could even be a minor detail that becomes much more significant. For example, you could be writing a mystery novel. Early on, you introduce a character named Charles, who takes a Dum-Dum sucker from a bank teller and pops it in his mouth. In subsequent scenes, he’s seen with one of the lollipops in his mouth, and in a dialogue with another character, admits that it’s a habit he picked up when he stopped smoking. However, in the introductory scene of the novel, the detectives are examining the apparent suicide of a writer. In her wastebasket are five crumpled first drafts of her suicide note… and a Dum-Dum wrapper. The detectives may not pick up on this, but your clever readers will jump on this. Charles was there the night of her death! But why? A small detail like that can turn an otherwise humdrum whodunit into a real page-turner, as the readers try to mentally connect the dots before the detectives do.
Some people say “don’t sweat the small stuff.” I disagree with that advice. Do sweat the small stuff. Make it part of your works. Your readers will thank you for it.