One of my favourite pastimes is to visit art museums and focus on the small details in a painting. A pearl bracelet dangling from a wrist. A lace ruffle on a sleeve. A jewel-encrusted ring. Thick impasto paint to suggest stiff brocade. Daubs of white to indicate shimmering silk.
Such details – whether portrayed with the loose brushwork of Rembrandt or the intricacy of Jan Van Eyck – awaken the curiosity of viewers, encouraging them to look at artwork in new ways. Viewers begin to consider the setting and context, the characters and their backstory, the artist’s style and technique, the story behind the artwork and its provenance.
Writers also use small details to enhance the scenes, characters and emotional connections in their stories. Readers are drawn to these intriguing details, allowing curiosity and imagination to take hold.
Details need to be vivid, precise and believable if they are to capture the reader’s attention. They need to be carefully crafted and placed sparingly throughout a story. Too much detail and readers will be overwhelmed or lose interest.
In his book The Elements of Style, professor of English William Strunk Jr wrote: “the surest way to arouse and hold the attention of the reader is by being specific, definite and concrete.”
In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel uses small, specific details to provide a glimpse into a character’s memory: “He examines a scar in the palm of his hand; it is an old burn mark, and it looks like a twist of rope. He thinks about Putney. He thinks about Walter.”
Vladimir Nabokov’s concise descriptions in Lolita create vivid images while hinting at tensions within the story: “…her skin glistening in the neon light coming from the paved court through the slits in the blind, her soot-black lashes matted, her grave grey eyes more vacant than ever.”
Including specific details within a story can make it vivid, powerful, emotive and memorable. It may only take a few details to highlight a particular character or object, but the details need to be chosen carefully to have impact.
When I visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam last week, I zoomed in my camera to capture details from The Jewish Bride by Rembrandt. The complete painting depicts a lovely story and pleasing design, but it’s the small details that make it extraordinary.