Detail is one of my favourite things to write. Unfortunately, I’m no good at it. Seriously. None.
Consider the following excerpt from Terramagnia, the children’s epic fantasy I wrote when I was about eleven:
It was a Wolf, but not a Wolf like the Wolves in our world. It was bigger than the Panther. Its coat was silver, silver like the moon, and stood up all along its back. More than that, the Wolf bore himself so proudly, yet somehow so humbly, that Melanie knew he was a knight. There was wildness, however, in everything about him; wildness in his stance, wildness in his bark, wildness in his deep blue eyes, blue as a lake and angry, like a lake in a thunderstorm.
“Steeldust,” hissed the Panther.
“Begone,” said the Wolf in a voice so soft that Melanie strained to hear. All this time, she had somehow known that the Wolf could speak, but when he did it was a most wonderful shock. He was almost howling, almost snarling; his voice itself spoke of long mountain runs in the moonlight, of bounding on the trail of caribou, of days spent loping free in the woods.
This is the first description of Steeldust the Wolf, who was rather a favourite of mine. Sure, there’s a lot of detail in it, but the details are all wrong. Firstly, they’re in entirely the wrong place. This was, in fact, an action scene. The wolf was fighting the panther when they both conveniently paused for long enough for Melanie (my POV character) to take in all this detail.
And so we hit the second flaw: it’s written out of point of view. We’re supposed to be seeing this through the eyes of Melanie, but instead, we’re reading a laundry list of details. We don’t get any of Melanie’s thoughts or emotions – just a picture of what she’s seeing. POV should be a lot more than that.
This second excerpt is from the first draft of Another Sword, written four years after Terramagnia. It’s clunky and clumsy and needs a lot of work, but I can already see the difference from the first excerpt:
Prince Demetrius. The last person I want to face, to have to play bodyguard to. To be responsible for.
Because I had one chance at that, and I completely blew it.
I’m starting to have serious second thoughts about this mission as I stand beside King Adolphus and watch the Prince make his slow and painful way up the hall. Eighteen months ago, before the attack, when he was still a squire in the first year with the rest of us, he was a picture-perfect prince. Slim, blond, blue-eyed, handsome and charming. Everyone in class liked him, even though he was only a mediocre student – hardworking, but not very talented. But he moved effortlessly, gracefully, like a deer.
Now, he can barely walk. One of his thin, elegant hands clutches the silver head of an ebony walking stick, which digs into the carpet as he grips it like a lifeline, tendons springing tight in his wrist. His unnaturally muscular right leg almost bows outwards as it supports his full weight. And the other leg… I don’t really want to look. Between the loose-fitting trousers and the specially made shoe, there’s nothing much to see. But it wobbles perilously under even the slightest weight, the toe swinging out, the knee buckling, before between the stick and the other leg he manages to get the weight off it and takes another staggering, struggling step.
Like the first excerpt, this is the first in-depth description of Prince Demetrius seen through the eyes of my main character, Flann. And like Steeldust in Terramagnia, Demetrius first appears in Another Sword during an action scene. Then, though, his description consists of a line or two, nothing more – we get just a vague impression of him, as Flann was rather more concerned with not getting killed than with studying the Prince.
Now, though, he’s at his leisure and has time to take in all the details. Being the sort of person who beats himself up about stuff, Flann instantly focuses on the Prince’s disability, which he feels responsible for. We get detail, yes; but we also get what that detail means and what’s going on in Flann’s head.
I’ve taken a step forward in my writing in one way, then. But even I can see how clunky that passage is. It’s more lame than Demetrius, for goodness’ sake.
I’d better get back to writing the second draft, then. Meanwhile, readers, feel free to drop a few lines of your own writing in the comments – your favourite piece of detail or character description. Or perhaps mention the writer you think does detail best. I’m backing Peter S. Beagle for his masterpieces, The Last Unicorn and Trinity County, C. A. (which has to be the best short story I’ve ever read in my life).