How to Use Detail in Storytelling

I’m going to describe a pivotal scene from an anime, called “After the Rain”.  It is about the relationship between a man in his 40s and a 17 year old girl.  This story is about awkwardness and it is a tender description about how they both rebuild their lives, after they lost track of their dreams.  He’s the manager of a restaurant and she is a waitress. This story includes several excellent examples of judicious use of detail in storytelling.

Rain is a recurring motif and each episode title is rain related. Umbrellas are a recurring motif, one example of the use of detail to create a mood.

In a pivotal scene, in the back office at the restaurant, they have visited a bookstall at a market.  The man once wanted to be a writer and the owner of the stall was an old acquaintance.  The girl purchased a book.  When she examines it, a bookmark falls out.  She asks if she should return it.  He replies, no it’s yours.  They examine it and it has a design of leaves.  The man notices if you hold it to the light there is a faint impression of a swift.  Probably foil has worn away. 

This leads to the man explaining there was a nest of swifts outside the office a few years ago.  He takes her outside to see where it was.  The conversation turns to the birds’ flying away to freedom. 

Following this they both move on and return to their dreams.  He takes up writing again and she regains confidence to run again, following a serious accident that had prevented her from running.

When to Use Detail

There are two possible mistakes when it comes to detail: too much and too little.

The best way to conjure a world in the minds of your audience, is to allow them to fill in the detail.  Visualise a kitchen.  You don’t need me to tell you to include a cooker and a fridge.  Probably, you start with a familiar kitchen, maybe your own and make adjustments as the story develops. 

Take great care over adjectives.  Mostly you don’t need them!  You don’t need to tell your audience the kitchen has magnolia walls, unless the colour of the walls is important to the story.  That’s the point, use adjectives to flesh out important detail.  The example at the start of this post, shows how detail moves the story forwards. 

Many personal stories lack detail.  We’ve all heard the advice, “show, not tell”.  Detail of objects packs an emotional punch, evoking emotion, place and time.  One person had a story about recovery from depression.  She would spend all day in bed.  I asked her to describe the bed.  The bed tells us what it’s like to be depressed, far more than a description of feelings. Detail in storytelling is immensely powerful.

The Power of Detail in Storytelling

The story at the start of this post, illustrates the power of detail.  There is the book, the bookmark that requires a lot of description and then the remains of the nest.  Each of these points, with increasing power, towards the path each protagonist must take.  And yet none of these objects, in themselves mean anything. 

It is easy to focus on the main character, especially if it is you but if you truly know your story, you can bring the world you inhabit alive.

A story I heard recently was about a man who had something stuck in his throat.  The story is about being unable to communicate, for more than one reason.  Eventually, the object is removed and turns out to be a large, green bayleaf.  How do I know it was large and green?  Because that is how the storyteller described it.  We don’t know for most of the story what it is, and until it appears we don’t know we want to know!  The bayleaf is captured because the man finds his voice.  Until that moment, we all assume it was fishbone because he was eating fish soup.

It’s not that there is anything wrong with adjectives.  The point is they are immensely powerful and should be used sparingly.

Detail and Emotion

We focus on relevant detail and suddenly the story pivots around us because we invest emotion in the object.  We don’t need to say how the protagonists felt, we show it through the object. 

I bought a deep red rose for my beloved.  In the ensuing row, it fell to the floor and she trod on it, it left a red stain on the carpet.  Do you see how you use imagery to express emotion?  How do you think this relationship develops?  We sometimes talk about blood on the floor, following a row.  It doesn’t look good. 

You could use this image as the final scene or just as easily as a pivotal moment, when they both saw – what?  Detail in storytelling has emotional heft but it is pliable, you can take it in many directions.  If this story has a happy ending, this scene serves to build tension. 

But note, the significance of the red rose depends on the character of the two protagonists. Detail in storytelling depends upon the character of the protagnists, who drive our stories and so we’ll look at that topic next time.

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About the Author

I've been a community development worker since the early 1980s in Tyneside, Teesside and South Yorkshire. I've also worked nationally for the Methodist Church for eight years supporting community projects through the church's grants programme. These days I am developing an online community development practice combining non-directive consultancy, strategic management, participatory methods and development work online and offline. If you're interested contact me for a free consultation.

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