For novelists and everyone else, detail sometimes involves a trick, curve, mystery or problem that’s invisible until—it’s too late. The phrase evolved from “God is in the detail,” and the author of triumphant details certainly achieves a succinct universality unavailable to mere mortals.
Since details are the stuff that novels are made of, how does the devil infiltrate?
The less new you can make it, then the faster you should say it.
If someone’s dying or a country’s being raped, resist the temptation to explain that this is horrible. Let vivid, understated details convey the point for you.
Why say it specifically, then generally? Or the other way around. This inadvertent habit
insinuates condescension. In other words, it presumes that readers can’t figure it out
without a few versions. So don’t patronize. Even accidentally. Even if you certainly never
intended ill will. Or insulting your readers is the last thing you want. See how annoying it
becomes in no time at all?
With rare exceptions, detail enhances story only when it enriches character and/or plot. Make the setting reveal character and heighten tension.
Don’t keep piling up similar details. No matter how vituperative the villain or angelic the
infant or pure the snow, provide nuance and dimensionality.
“Literature differs from life in that life is amorphously full of detail, and rarely directs us toward it, whereas literature teaches us to notice. Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in literature; which in turn makes us better readers of life” (James Wood). Emphasize the details you want readers to notice. This sounds silly! But it’s easy to distract yourself with the vividness of an image or sound of a sentence and lose track of what matters about this scene.
“The truth of the story lies in the details” (Paul Auster). You annoy readers by
confusing the location of Times Square or crucial dates of WWII. You also annoy
readers by trampling psychological and moral truth in the characters you create.
“Nothing is less real than realism,” Georgia O'Keeffe observed. “Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” No matter how autobiographical your fiction, choose details to reveal pattern and cement credibility. Offer the focus that reality cannot.