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How to choose small details to move your scenes forward

I was reminded the other day that writing short pieces is great practice for writing longer pieces. I had just finished my creative nonfiction submission for the Surrey International Writers’ Conference Writing Contest and was editing it one last time when I realized I hadn’t grounded my reader in the location of the initial scene. Yes, I placed it in a mobile home but where was that home in the world? I could have left it as is and it would have still been fine, but I decided that showing where the home was located would better serve the piece as a whole.

But how to include those details in a manner that served the story while keeping the piece under the 1,500-word limit of the contest?

As Sandra Scofield states in “The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer,” the “last thing you want is a scene stuffed with useless details.” Among other considerations, Scofield says:

Small descriptions and activities establish settings and tone for the scene. Sometimes a few lines are enough. Sometimes more is needed, especially if the setting is exotic.

So what small descriptions could I add to help ground my reader and still have those descriptions move the story forward?

On the first page of my story, I’d just told a van full of church ladies that Mom won’t be joining them at Bible study that night (because she has sudden onset dementia and is hiding out inside her home). I wanted to convey to the reader where she lived—in Kitsap County in Washington State–and that we were having an unusual heat wave. My first attempt looked something like this:

Clouds of dust obscured their taillights as they drove down the driveway. Kitsap County was experiencing an unusual heat wave that summer.

Not bad. But kind of boring and clunky. And most readers wouldn’t know where Kitsap County was unless they googled it. For twenty minutes, I fiddled with the two lines until I came up with something that did the job:

As they drove away, clouds of dust obscured their taillights. Our current heat wave in the Pacific Northwest had left the landscape parched—even the tall evergreens surrounding the mobile home look wilted. I trudged back inside…

Working on this short piece reminded me how important each detail is in a scene. As I go back to edit my novel-in-progress one of my questions will be:

  • What small details can I choose to ground the reader in the scene and further the story?

To read more about choosing grounding details, check out my earlier post, “Ground your readers and they will follow you anywhere.”

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Very interesting! I find sometimes I forget that I haven’t described the location, simply because it is so vivid in my mind that I forget it is not on the page!

    July 15, 2013
  2. I like how you gave examples of how you worked on your section to add the details in an interesting way 🙂
    Thanks for the great post

    July 17, 2013

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