WriterStrong: Strong Details for Strong Reader Emotions

Writers in the Storm is pleased to introduce you to Sherry Thomas. We were lucky to hear Sherry speak at an OCC RWA monthly meeting this fall and even luckier when she agreed to share her writing acumen  with us.

by Sherry Thomas

A detail for me isn’t the color of the wall, the precise shape of a button, or the precise combination of spices in a particular dish.  Or rather, it is.  But I will only work with a detail when I can connect it to the larger emotional theme of a story.

From Not Quite a Husband, which will always be a personal favorite among my own books.

Sherry Thomas’s 2010 RITA winner

“From time to time she would be at the most incidental activity—lacing her boots or reading an article on the adhesion of the intestine to the stump after an ovariotomy— and a physical memory would barrel out of nowhere and mow her down like a runaway carriage.

The boutonnière he’d worn the evening he first kissed her, a single stephanotis blossom, pure white, as tiny and lovely as a snowflake.

 The sensation of raindrops on warm wool as she placed her hand on his sleeve— he’d come personally to the curb to see her into her carriage—and the wonderful stillness of her world as he said, smiling, through the still­open carriage door, “Well, why not? It should be no hardship to be married to you.”

The almost prismatic glint of sunlight on the fob of his enameled watch—which she’d given to him as an engagement present. He held it suspended in midair, staring at its pendulum swing, while she asked for his cooperation in obtaining an annulment.

But mostly those upsurges of memory were nothing but ghost pains, nervous misfires from limbs that had been long since amputated.”

Each detail she remembers—the shape and color of the boutonnière, the sensation of rain on his sleeve, the sunlight reflecting off his watch—is connected to a central event in this couple’s history.

I chose such details rather than come right out and say, Their first kiss.  The day he agreed to marry her.  The day she asked for an annulment.  Words such as “their first kiss” definitely have power, but I like to enhance that inherent power with specificity and exactitude.  What makes that first kiss completely unique to these two characters?  What makes their story different from the story of the couple next door?  That’s what I look for when I search for details.

How do I locate such details?  Well, I pluck them out of thin air.  No exaggeration.  The point is not the details themselves, but what you do with them.

I gave a workshop not long ago on evoking emotions and decided two days before to revamp the section I had on using details.  That particular morning, when I checked the mail box, there was a holiday catalog from the Container Store, full of fun little stocking stuffers.

We don’t do stocking stuffers at our house, but I went through the catalog because it was full of CUTE.  My attention was caught by this particular bit of cute.

Our teenage son is on his fourth cell phone, so you can bet something that will help folks return his phone to him—or us—is of interest to me.

Then I thought, hey, that would be an interesting detail to use in my workshop.  But as I was trying to figure out how exact to use that detail without getting bogged down with too much explanation of how the QR decal works , my attention was caught by the cute on the exact next page—you can verify that it is indeed the next page by checking the page number.

Well, well, what do we have here?  And just about everyone knows how a USB thumb drive works.

So here is one of the thumb drives in action.

“That’s cute,” said the passenger in the seat next to hers.

He pointed at her flash drive that was in the shape of a dragon, a green dragon with yellow eyelids, yellow spine plates, and a white belly. 

“It’s my husband’s.  He loves dragons.”  It’s.  Loves.  Twenty months after Tim’s passing, whenever she wasn’t careful, she still spoke of him in the present.  “He even took me to a geekfest called DragonCon once.

The last good year.  Before his diagnosis.  Before three years in and out of the hospital. He was buried with his very first set of Dungeons and Dragons rule books and the Lego Millenium Falcon he’d put together when he was thirteen. 

She’d almost put in the green dragon flash drive, loaded full of all their pictures through the years, into the casket.  But in the end she’d kept it, a memento of her wonderful geek, of all their happy years together, even though she never did make it through the first book of the Lord of the Rings, not even a hundred pages.

That was the example I gave in my workshop.  But suppose I’d never come across that page of fun, silly thumb drives, suppose all I had were the QR code decals.

No, problem.  It’s not about the details.  It’s what you do with them.

Her cell phone is old, its technology ancient, by current standards.  It has no GPS, no MP3 player, and only a most rudimentary camera.  The battery never lasts more than twenty-four hours no matter how diligent she charges it.  And the screen is cracked at the corner, from when it slipped out of her purse a few months ago. 

Her mother has been asking her to get a new phone for ages.  But she keeps delaying.  She is used to the feel of the squat old phone in her hand.  She likes its gentle, friendly beeps. Whenever she waits at a red light, she turns the phone over and rubs her thumb against a peeling-off corner of the decal on the back. 

Tim had put the decal in place long ago, her Tim who loved gadgetry and cool new things.  She was always forgetting her phone in restaurants and movie theaters—the QR code on the decal made it easy for the good people who found the phone to give it back to her.

But Tim wasn’t all digital.  He was pretty good in the analog world too–always bringing her keys and her purse from odd places in the house back to her nightstand so she’d be able to find them in the morning before she headed out for work. 

She learned to do it for herself, eventually.  That’s how long he has been gone, long enough for her to finally become more like him.  Which would have astonished him, if he only knew.

So seriously, you can pick just about anything and make it a striking detail that evokes emotions.  To repeat, it’s not the details.  It’s the world, the history, the character you build around it.  And you enter it via the exactitude and specificity of details.

Do you have examples of how you’ve used details to evoke emotion in your story? Do you have any “how-to” questions?

Announcement:

One of our favorite WITS friends, Janice Hardy, just put this up at her amazing blog, The Other Side of the Story.

Photo from WritingForward.com

“Every year, Writer’s Digest puts out its 101 Top Websites for Writers. Considering how many fantastic blogs and sites are out there, it must be hard to choose just 101.

Right now you can nominate your favorite blog. Just email writersdigest@fwmedia.com and put “101 Websites” in the subject line. Then tell them why you think that blog deserves to be part of next year’s list.

Give a blogger a thrill. Nominate today!”
(And yes, we’d be thrilled beyond measure if you threw our name in the ring.)

About Sherry

Sherry Thomas is one of the most acclaimed romance authors working today.  Her books regularly receive starred reviews from trade publications and are frequently found on best-of-the-year lists.  She is also a two-time winner of Romance Writers of America’s prestigious RITA® Award.

English is Sherry’s second language—she has come a long way from the days when she made her laborious way through Rosemary Roger’s SWEET SAVAGE LOVE with an English-Chinese dictionary. She enjoys digging down to the emotional core of stories. And when she is not writing, she thinks about the zen and zaniness of her profession, plays computer games with her sons, and reads as many fabulous books as she can find.

Sherry’s next book, The Burning Sky, volume one of her young adult fantasy trilogy, will be available fall 2013.

Website: http://www.sherrythomas.com

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30 Responses to WriterStrong: Strong Details for Strong Reader Emotions

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Wow Sherry, that is powerful! Great blog — the example makes the difference stark in contrast! And your book is going in my TBR pile!

  2. Bob Stewart says:

    Great detail in the blog. I’ll take it to heart.

  3. Terrific examples of how you work in details into your writing. (And can I gush here and say how much I loved Delicious. I don’t read a lot of historicals, but you are on the top of my list and those detail examples are some of the reasons why. Bet ‘Not Quite a Husband’ is delicious too.

  4. marsharwest says:

    Amazing writing, Sherry, and super examples. Another great lense to use when rewriting and editing to amp up the emotional level, which I’m always looking for. Thanks so much for this. And can I say again, what amazing writing!🙂

  5. Nickie Asher says:

    Awesome post. Details are tough for me so this was a real eye opener.

  6. Great post. I remember the day I figured this out and quit listing things like a realty ad. hahaha

  7. Ack. “That’s how long he has been GONE” in the QR code example, not “how long he has been long.” I am the most terrible proofreader, especially of my own stuff. 🙂

    Thank you to everyone for your lovely words. Jessica, I’m so thrilled you enjoyed Delicious.

    And Melissa, exactly! You want to avoid at all cost a list of things like a realty ad.

  8. Well, let me clarify my previous comment. Sometimes when you describe things, it’s inevitable that they read like a list, and that’s perfectly fine. I write sentences like this–“The room had a bed, a table, two chairs, and a shelf.”–all the time. But the next detail had better link back to the story, the character, or the larger emotion of the scene in some way.

  9. What a wonderful bit of writing advice! Thank you so much! You’ve already got me thinking of ways I can enhance several of my own scenes. I’m so excited about this. Thanks for sharing!🙂

  10. I am happy you came to OCCRWA to speak! You are my favorite “newly discovered”author, probably because of your attention to detail and your use of subtext–both such subtle things to the reader. Thanks for sharing your “how to” tips. So glad you have a backlist!
    -Fae

  11. Reblogged this on The Joys of Writing and commented:
    This is such a great post that I had to reblog it. Great tips/advice for writers!

  12. Sharla Rae says:

    I agree with Laura. wonderful blog and a new way to look at description by attaching it to emotions. I love it. It adds more richness and depth.

  13. Thanks, Sherry. I love the examples you gave. Great stuff and a great way to add mutliple layers of emotions and caputre our imaginations🙂

  14. Thank you, Sherry, for offering us a glimpse into your writing world. It was wonderful reading your examples.

  15. Thank you, everyone. Examples take some time to write but they illustrate the point so much better than just “do as I say.” 🙂

  16. Your writing is so warm, Sherry. I try to be warm and begin to worry that I’m going over-the-top in description and emotion, and end up with a somewhat cooler prose to move the plot along. Example from my last MS…lol:

    The duke’s eyes narrowed perceptibly, noticing the stress she placed on the word “finally”, but took her hand with a slight press of his fingers. He pulled the chair beside him out for her to sit, and she did so, taking care to move past him without touching even the fabric of his jacket. His hands, where they clutched the arms of her chair, were brown and callused, decidedly not the hands of a pampered, spoiled aristocrat. She lifted her face in curiosity, meeting his steady gaze, but her eyes dropped immediately to his full lips, which parted on a slow breath that then drew her attention to his throat. He wore no necktie, and the bob of his Adam’s apple against the high collar as he swallowed made her draw in a sharp breath. His hands flexed on the arms of the chair and then moved away, the moment breaking almost as quickly as it had occurred. Cornelia flushed, avoiding her mother’s eyes as she reached for the china pot to pour a cup of tea.

    I hate feeling like a cliche, and lamentably rely too much on my characters’ blushes!

  17. Maria says:

    Wow, even when you write about writing you write beautifully! I can’t wait to read more.

  18. Chris Cannon says:

    You made me tear up with the details about burying her husband with the D&D rule book and the Millennium Falcon he built when he was thirteen. I can’t believe how strongly I reacted to those tiny details. Probably because I’m married to a man who has both those items tucked away in a box in the basement. I’ve read other articles about using details for a purpose rather than as a description of settings, but this is the first time it made sense to me. Thanks for sharing.

  19. Absolutely brilliant! Had me in tears, too.

  20. Private Arrangements is still my favorite of your books. I just read a good part of the book to find this example I remember that hit an emotional chord with me: She inhaled his subtle scent of sandalwood and citrus, the aroma she had once equated with happiness.

    Thanks for the excellent post. Just in time for editing on my NaNo project.

  21. More thank-yous all around, everyone.

    Evangeline, I don’t think there is anything the matter with your tone. I would, however, beware of the “thicket of details” effect. It slows the pace of your story. I’m assuming there is dialogue involved in the scene, since there are several people present. This much observation can supply four or five exchanges, divvied up to used in place of dialogue tags. That way you get your observations in, and you can keep the story moving.

    Chris, if you’ve ever watched the Olympics, you’d notice that they always do these profiles on athletes you’d never heard of before in order that you should care about them. Sometimes the profiles are too saccharine, sometimes they are a bit ham-fisted, but by and large they work. We care more about those we know. And when I write about my characters, it’s always with an eye on how I can impart knowledge about my characters to the reader. And the more intimate the knowledge, the better the readers will respond.

    Ally, it was great meeting you in Dallas!

  22. Powerful, brilliant post, Sherry. I had tears in my eyes after the cell phone example. Thank you so much for sharing.

  23. Yvonne Montgomery says:

    Love the details you used, Sherry. They sparked ideas immediately. Thanks.

  24. Fantastic post. You amaze me.

  25. Reblogged this on Ella Quinn ~ Author and commented:
    Great post from WITS and Sherry Thomas

  26. ProfeJMarie (Janet Rundquist) says:

    This was fantastic. Your real and sample descriptions come at just the right moment for me – very inspiring. Those kinds of details are what I like best – not for a visual, but for a feeling. Great advice, thanks!

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  30. Thank you, everyone!

    Just here to say that part two of this topic, how to weave those powerful details into a powerful emotional refrain, can be found here. http://annacowan.com/2012/12/20/one-powerful-motif

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