Inkpop Blog

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How to add details to a story

Posted by inkpop on February 13, 2010

inktip #16: Editor Molly O’Neill shows how to accessorize without going overboard

“I like to think of details being like accessories.”

That’s the approach Molly O’Neill takes for dressing up a story with details. The assistant editor for Katherine Tegen Books (a HarperCollins imprint) has worked on fleshing out the fun stuff for authors including Kathryn Fitzmaurice, Bobbie Pyron, Lauren Oliver, and Melissa Marr.

Here, O’Neill shares her do’s and don’ts for successful story details.

GO FOR THE UNEXPECTED

Think past the first idea that comes to mind. “Don’t go for the expected details that everyone else uses,” O’Neill says. “Pushing yourself for more creativity in the details is an exercise that will help you be more original and creative in every part of your writing.”

STUDY THE PROS

One of the best ways to learn about details is to study your favorite books. “It’s like getting a writing course from your favorite authors—for free!” O’Neill says.

O’Neill has two favorite kinds of details in writing. The first is when details bring two things together to give a vibrant image in an unexpected way. Here’s an example of this, from the opening page of a novel O’Neill is co-editing called A Dog’s Way Home by Bobbie Pyron:

It was a near-to-perfect fall day. The late October sky was so blue and crisp it made my eyes hurt. And the Virginia hills, all colors with their pretty fall leaves, lumped and folded around us like one of Meemaw’s patchwork quilts.

Secondly, O’Neill loves when details give a vivid sense of place or time, or when they turn almost sensory, making the reader feel like she’s right there in the scene, seeing, smelling, feeling, or tasting along with the character.

This snippet from Lauren Oliver’s Before I Fall is a good example. “I can absolutely envision each of these moments and what they looked and felt like—and they tell me so much about the main character and the life she’s been living,” O’Neill says.

The truth is, though, I wouldn’t have minded reliving my greatest hits: when Rob Cokran and I first hooked up in the middle of the dance floor at homecoming, so everyone saw and knew we were together; when Lindsay, Elody, Ally and I got drunk and tried to make snow angels in May, leaving person-sized imprints in Ally’s lawn; my sweet sixteenth party, when we set out a hundred tea lights and we all danced on the table in the backyard; the time Lindsay and I pranked Clara Seuse on Halloween, got chased down by the cops, and laughed so hard we almost threw up. The things I wanted to remember; the things I wanted to be remembered for.

DON’T OVERACCESSORIZE

O’Neill’s aforementioned accessory analogy is right on for writing. The thing to remember is “easy does it.”

“A well-chosen accessory or two can make your outfit really memorable—the bold pop of color that a great scarf or hat can give to a dark-winter colored outfit, or the earrings that perfectly set off an elegant dress, making you look even more glam,” O’Neill says. “But having too many details is like wearing every single accessory in your closet plus every item in your jewelry box, all at the same time—it looks cute when a 3-year-old does that while playing dress-up, but isn’t really a look that works for the rest of us!”

STRIKE A BALANCE

The key to many parts of writing is finding balance—as in, your details should harmonize with the story. “But if you begin to notice that your details are crowding out the other elements of storytelling, like the actual plot that moves the story forward, it may be time to scale back and be more selective,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill recommends reading your story aloud, or inviting someone to read it aloud to you. You’ll be able to detect the details that enhance the story and those that may be distracting. “Sometimes things look good on paper, but you get a whole different impression when you hear them read out loud, or by someone else—kinda like the lime, zebra-print shoes that looked fun at the store, but that maybe look a little crazy when you take them home and actually think about wearing them!” O’Neill jokes.

SAVE YOUR LEFTOVERS

All in all, O’Neill says you want to be certain that your details are serving your story, and not the other way around. “Make sure your story hasn’t become the slave of a whole bunch of great details that don’t actually add up to anything,” she says.

O’Neill references a quote that’s often attributed to William Faulkner. “He says that sometimes you have to ‘kill your darlings’—in other words, sometimes you have to let go of an image or detail that just doesn’t fit or actually help along the story you’re trying to tell,” she says.

But even though certain details might not work for one paragraph, chapter, or book, doesn’t mean they won’t work for another. O’Neill recommend creating a separate document to save all those snippets. “You never know when a detail that was discarded from one story is just what you need in another story,” she says. “That file can kinda be like the scarf that comes attached to a sweater that you don’t actually like wearing as a scarf at all … but that you transform into a great belt!”

KEEP EVERYTHING STRAIGHT

Details can be hard to keep track of, so do whatever works best to remember them. You could create a document of details about setting, characters, plot, etc.

“If you mention in chapter two that your character has a part-time job at a florist shop, keep in mind that we’ll need to see her or him actually working there,” O’Neill says. “Or if a character sprains his or her ankle in one scene, she/he is going to have to be limping or on crutches for the next few scenes—you can’t have him or her running full-speed away from the bad guys on the next page.”

In short, don’t constantly invent details as you need them and then never come back to them. “Thread them through the whole story in small and big ways,” she says.

HAVE FUN WHILE YOU’RE AT IT!

Details are one of the places in storytelling where you get to really make your story come alive, O’Neill says. “You can plan little clues that become immensely important later, you can create a fascinating persona full of unexpected character traits, you can even give characters the outfits and families and summer jobs that you’ve always wanted!”

The inkpop blog is written by inkpopAmy

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