In one writing seminar, a classmate wrote in my margins, "God is in the details." While that quote comes from an architect, a good writer will use details to infuse the work with life.
But, you may say, readers want to escape from everyday details.
True, but details create the world, and the world interacts with the characters. Writers call this "verisimilitude."
Imagine a scene in which John meets Mary to break up with her. As the writer, you get to pick the place. Since it's set in New York, you decide on a pizzeria. Now put yourself in that pizzeria. Are there booths or tables with chairs?
What's on the table? Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes? Is there graffiti on the table? What does it say? What does your pizzeria smell like? Is the place crowded? When was the floor last swept? Is the menu on the wall? What are the guys doing behind the counter?
As you answer these questions, consider your characters' mood. Consider what's about to happen and how it's going to take place, and then craft the details to enhance the scene. Mary is about to be broken-hearted; the salt and pepper shakers are only half-full. If John is angry, maybe he chooses mushrooms even though Mary dislikes them. Is it going to be a heated breakup? Details tell how your characters perceive the passage of time: maybe while waiting, a bored John runs his finger up and down the glass curves of the red pepper shaker.
Given just the right emphasis, a detail enters the reader's mind, delineates the boundaries of the characters' world, and then fades. The reader picks up the tension but never traces it to the puddle of condensation growing around the water pitcher or to the flickering fluorescent light behind the counter.
The magic of details is how they telegraph to the reader things the narrator knows but doesn't tell (as in a third-person narrator foreshadowing). Moreover, good use of detail will alert the reader to circumstances even the narrator doesn't know. For example, a woman who over time mentions how her daughter is secretive about what she eats, vanishes into the bathroom after meals and has unexplained bad breath can telegraph to the reader that the daughter is bulimic even though she herself never puts the clues together.
Details at their most basic help convince us of the world's reality, but at their best they keep the reader interpreting the story in "realtime." So while we may read to escape the details of our lives, details in the story assist in the reader's escape.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) andThe Boys Upstairs (this December from MuseItUp). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four children. She is represented by Roseanne Wells of the Marianne Strong Literary Agency.