From Concept to Specific: Hunting the Perfect Detail

No, it’s not quite like hunting snipe.

But it matters a lot more.

Yes, I’m working on a picture-book revision this week, so the detail problem is more in my face than when I’m writing early draft thoughts about the YA WIP. But still…it’s relevant for all writing, I think.

Yesterday, on Facebook, Hélène Boudreau said she was craving s’mores. And then she posted this picture:

Look at that. Is that a chocolate bar over which the marshmallow is melting? It is not. It’s a peanut-butter cup.

Besides making me drool crazily and want to run right out to the store for supplies, what does the peanut-butter cup do? It changes the whole thing. If you’re like me and you love peanut butter, not to mention peanut butter inside chocolate, it makes the whole idea of a s’more so much better, I’ll never go back. (Now if someone would just come up with a replacement for those dry graham crackers!) If you are someone who doesn’t like peanut-butter cups (seriously?!), it might make you shake your head in dismay. If you have peanut allergies, I’m guessing you’re not having a happy Pavlovian response right now.

My point? There’s a difference between a plain chocolate bar and a peanut-butter cup. And it’s a difference that can tell us something specific about a person or a character.

You start with an idea, a concept. Let’s say: Friendship. I like that. Now, because you know better than to tell this friendship, you try to think of something that shows friendship. How about a present? Okay. Great. What present? A book? Or a racing-car set? Tickets to the next James Bond movie? Or to that all-nude production of Waiting for Godot?

One more? Concept: Anger. Details: Throwing a chair through the window or curling up into a ball on the couch? Knocking down that tower of blocks or turning your back on everybody else in the room and building that tower slowly, steadily, as close to the sky as you can get it?

I’ve gone on here about how I’m usually on the side of fewer details, especially in historical novels. And I stand by my belief that too many details is just…too many.  I also get that–with a picture book–the writer who supplies too many details is not only overdoing the word count, but is probably also getting in the way of the illustrator. BUT…when it comes time to actually pick a detail, you need the right one. It needs to add to the story, reveal character, and create an image in the reader’s mind.

What will I be doing today? Sitting at my computer, staring into space, letting ideas and words and images saunter through my brain. I’ll have my butterfly net handy, ready to catch any possibilities, drop them into my story, and see if they’re the right fit. Most I’ll set free again, but I’m definitely hoping for one that will decide to stay.

A couple of recommendations for picture books in which the authors have, IMO, done a beautiful job picking details:


  1. Details, devil is in. As for the updated s’more, how about ginger snaps instead of graham crackers? Shortbread cookies might be good, too, but they tend to be on the crumbly side. Oh, oh – cream biscuits! Slightly sweet, slightly Brit, should be fabulous with peanut butter.


  2. Jenn Hubbard says:

    I was just thinking about this “details” issue today! There’s a line in my 2nd book where the MC admits that sometimes when he put his earbuds in, he wouldn’t even turn on the music; he just wanted to put distance between him and people around him. To me, that’s one of the most important lines in the book, in terms of characterization. And I’m hunting for those kinds of details for my current set of characters …


  3. Oh yes. The details–picking the right ones–totally matters. And I agree, peanut butter cups would be wonderful in s’mores! Good example.


    • beckylevine says:

      Husband is currently designing up an outdoor fireplace. Should I be stocking up on the marshmallows & reeses NOW?


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