Details Are Great Except When They’re Not

One attribute of good writers is an eye for detail. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, relating relevant and memorable details can make your writing sing like a soprano at the opera. Like Nero Wolfe’s love for the Phalaenopsis Aphrodite orchid or Wendell Berry’s onomatopoeic depiction of the “good, good, good” sound of men drinking from a moonshine whiskey jug in Jayber Crow.

But sometimes details can be lethal to an article, story, or book. For example, unless you’re capturing a specific period in your writing (the sixties, say, or the Elizabethan Age), incorporating trends and product names into your writing could quickly date your scenes. Everyone may be playing Fortnite this year; but by the time your book, story, or article comes out, that reference may be as dated as if they were on MySpace. (Ask your grandma; she’ll tell you about MySpace.) Or, a certain brand of tennis shoes may be cool at your school; but a few hundred miles away they may be considered geeky.

In such cases, the usual advantage of crisp details disappears and generalization takes its place. So, instead of having your character sign into Instagram, mention that she “posted a photo online” or on “social media”; those references are likely to last longer than the more specific app or platform. (Who even knows if apps will be around in five years?) Or, maybe instead of using a Tesla to portray your character’s wealth or sophistication, generalize the reference into a “sleek sports car” or “the latest model.”

It’s similarly risky to use the real names of movie stars, television personalities, athletes, or rock stars. Just reflect for a moment on celebrities who have died, disappeared, or disgraced themselves in the last year; and you’ll see that such references often have the shelf life of milk. Instead, make up something appropriate to the period (doing so could also save you from alienating fans or even—yikes!—libeling someone). Years ago, when Nirvana topped the charts (see what I mean?), a friend of mine used the band name Nervosa in some of his writing. That did the trick; and, because it was an invention, that group has never disbanded or lost its popularity.

Finally, be careful of slang. It’s a mine field. Sure, it can imprint your character in memorable ways; but it’s easy to misstep. It’s much better to suggest the way someone talks without using words or phrases that are likely to sour before (or soon after) publication. You know, of course, that “gnarly, dude” died a well-deserved death decades ago. But these days, slang expressions (especially of the urban and internet varieties) come and go faster than your typing speed.

Generally (see what I did there?), it’s wise to scan your copy for terms and other details that may not survive the life of your article, story, or book. Like “man buns.” Seriously. Don’t even get me started.


25 Responses to Details Are Great Except When They’re Not

  1. Debby Kratovil April 10, 2019 at 5:16 am #

    Or the reverse: you use a term that wasn’t “invented” yet for the time period you’re writing about. Case in point – The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018). She uses the term “snowflake” (as we mean it today) in dialogue for a 2006 character! Maybe her editor was in his/her 20s and thought that term is immortal? Excellent thoughts here today, Bob! We all must pay attention to those details.

  2. Loretta Eidson April 10, 2019 at 5:17 am #

    Great thoughts! Now you’ve got me wondering what I need to change in my manuscript. Hmm… Thanks, Bob!

    • Bob Hostetler April 10, 2019 at 6:55 am #

      Loretta, start by removing all references to “man buns.”

      • claire o'sullivan April 15, 2019 at 1:52 am #

        I am trying not to laugh too loudly and wake my hubby. *Man buns.* You’re a hoot.


        I failed. Woke the otherwise snoring bear (my husband, not a real bear) into the ‘Huh, wha..s’okay over there?’

  3. Barbara Harper April 10, 2019 at 5:48 am #

    Yes! I’ve often thought that describing a character as a famous actor look-alike is somewhat lazy writing, yet I see that too often. And, as you said, that actor’s reputation or popularity might not hold up for long.

    Sometimes these details are distracting or ineffective. One recent book I read frequently mentioned one character’s RAV4. I had no idea what that was, so I didn’t know what it was supposed to convey about the person, and I didn’t care enough about that detail to look up the car.

    • Bob Hostetler April 10, 2019 at 6:57 am #

      Perfect examples, Barbara. “Movie star looks” and “SUV” work better in such cases.

  4. Jennifer Mugrage April 10, 2019 at 6:17 am #

    The comic Foxtrot is great at this. It often features trends and tech, but usually with pseudonym that is funny, recognizable, but not actionable, like the cute iFruity PCs that comevin fruit colors.

    • Bob Hostetler April 10, 2019 at 6:58 am #

      So funny. Of course, even iFruity computers are dated now!

  5. Roberta Sarver April 10, 2019 at 6:51 am #

    Bob, Your writing style is so readable. Thanks for this reminder.

    I just found an old book The Fire and the Gold by Phyllis Whitney, when we cleaned out my mother’s house after her decease. While written in the mid-50s, the book contained a lot of slang from the early 1900s. I enjoyed reading those expressions, but yes, they were outdated already when she wrote them. –However, on second thought, they DID give the reader an open window into the culture of that time.

    • Bob April 10, 2019 at 7:00 am #

      Aw, ‘taint nothin’, Roberta. Accurate historical details–like slang that is specific to the period in which a scene is set–are crucial to good historical fiction. BUT of course they have to be accurate, regardless of when the author is writing.

  6. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser April 10, 2019 at 7:02 am #

    You’ve left me in a stcky wicket,
    and headed for a wizard prang
    crashing through the thermal thicket
    where everybody shakes their thang.
    I think I’m going to take a shufti
    at what the god-wallah wears
    and have a clifty at his dhobi;
    putting it on, I’ll put on airs!
    I’m really groovin’, do you feel me?
    Dig it, Chester, we stylin’ now,
    And it’s maybe time to didi
    lest everyone think me dien cai dau.
    Cowabunga, man, it’s tubular here,
    literary green room…that’s no bum steer.

  7. Roberta Sarver April 10, 2019 at 7:05 am #

    Andrew, your poetry is amazing!

  8. Sheri Dean Parmelee, Ph.D. April 10, 2019 at 7:43 am #

    I hate to tell you, Bob, but I have no idea what man buns are….oh, wait, are they a part of a man’s anatomy or a hairdo? Point well made, as always.

  9. Jeanne Takenaka April 10, 2019 at 7:44 am #

    When I first started writing, I was encouraged to use brand names of shoes, cars, etc. But, I see the value of using more general terms for describing things (cars, brand names, actors, etc). I will be going back through my manuscript to see what I need to change.

    And I’ll make sure no man buns are mentioned . . . anywhere. 😉

  10. Carol Ashby April 10, 2019 at 7:45 am #

    Great points, Bob. Not everyone has the same opinion of a brand. Some Ford pickup owners would rather die than drive a Chevy or GMC and consider the Chevy fans to be of lesser intelligence. Likewise for some Chevy owners. One author thought a Jeep Cherokee said “manly” about a character, when “everyone” who knows Jeep realizes the Cherokee is the family car. It’s the Wrangler that’s the go-everywhere model.

    I write Roman era, so I don’t get caught by contemporary slang problems, but I do slip in some Latin (with glossary and obvious meaning in context). I’d bet everyone here would know what it means to be nauseabundus on a merchant ship at sea even before they check the glossary.

  11. Lila Diller April 10, 2019 at 7:46 am #

    In general, ? I agree that this generalization is a smart practice. However, I have a couple of examples to the contrary.

    1. I recently was an advanced reader for two contemporary Christian novels that included several mentions of pop culture that I loved (and mentioned in my reviews). One mentioned a bunch of books and authors, mostly classics but a few were more recent, along with the names of well-known musicians, such as Mick Jagger. The other book referenced several well-known shows and brands, from Gilmore Girls to Batman to Bath and Body Works to Guardians of the Galaxy.

    2. In my own writing, I made a change in my first self-published novel. I was really scared that big trademarked brands would come after me, so I only mentioned “that cheap taco restaurant” and the “burger place.” But as I recorded my audiobook, I realized that it sounded stilted and unnatural for dialogue. I went back and changed them to Taco Bell and McDonald’s.

  12. Regina Merrick April 10, 2019 at 11:11 am #

    Good points. Another problem with details are when you get them WRONG and the writer and three editors never caught it. But my dad did. I included a 1977 Oldsmobile Caprice Classic in my second book. It was a Chevy. Olds never made a Caprice. I’ve face-palmed ever since . . . LOL

  13. Debby kratovil April 10, 2019 at 4:22 pm #

    Sometimes you can make reference to a bygone “movie star” that was a legend, if only for a short time. James Dean from the 1950s figures into one of my (unpublished) stories. A true tale about a troubled young man I knew who tried to emulate this movie “icon.”

    David wanted SO bad to be James Dean. “When David looked in the cracked mirror in the hall he saw James Dean, his idol. He was the symbol of everything David wanted to be, everything he was not – yet. To be James Dean consumed him, absorbed all his energy. It was the substance of his days, the visions in his nights. He wanted to be strange, so strange that people wouldn’t be able to forget him. He purposely wanted to make people despise him and he didn’t really know why, just that it was the driving force behind everything he did. That was Dean. That was David. A lot of the anger in David’s life came from his knowledge that he could never, ever be James Dean.”

    So? What am I saying? Go look up who James Dean was! To understand what David was so consumed with, take a little trip to Wikopedia, ok? Make your readers do a little thinking, to understand that your character, in the 1950s, was the heart throb of women, the envy of every. Single. Man. A short life. A meteor that flashed and splashed and – poof – gone in a spark that can still live. That’s in your power. Enough said – going to bed!

  14. Kristen Joy Wilks April 10, 2019 at 7:39 pm #

    Ha ha! I live in the Pacific Northwest and nothing says rafting guide, ski instructor, or rock climber like the classic man bun. Guys here were wearing their hair like this way way before it was popular and I suspect they will be still doing this long after the man bun horrifies the entire nation. Just makes sense if you are out in the wilderness doing stuff. Tie your hair back and enjoy the forest! Then again, folks here never stopped wearing flannel either. If you’re out hiking, wearing a flannel just makes sense, too. Keeps the mosquitoes and the chill away and if you are too hot, just tie it around your waist. Perhaps this is particular to our rugged mountain area. Ha!

    • claire o'sullivan April 15, 2019 at 1:57 am #

      I live in the PNW also, never classified guys by their man buns, however… pretty funny stuff.

      PNW– where the wood meets water, the mountain meets meadow and flannel is as necessary as a Ford pickup.

  15. Jennifer Mugrage April 11, 2019 at 6:21 am #

    Debby: James Dean made it into the song American Pie, thus immortalizing him forever. I’d say he’s fair game, just like Elvis or Marilyn Monroe.

    Kristen: I love the Pacific Northwest, the whole outdoor lifestyle, and the woodsy look. (Not the politics, but you can’t have everything.)

    The reason man buns look ridiculous as a trend is because they look so pretentious in an urban setting.

    • Kristen Joy Wilks April 11, 2019 at 8:56 am #

      Yes, Jennifer Mugrage, like wearing a cowboy hat if you don’t know how to ride a horse and muck out the barn! And politics in WA is fascinating since the mountains form a clear political divide. Liberal on the west side of the mountains, conservative on the east side of the mountains. Something for everyone along with the flannels and man buns!

  16. Gay Lewis April 11, 2019 at 6:41 am #

    Thanks. I wish I’d not used current names of athletes in my first book.

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