(To survey other elements and author quotes, visit the Elements of Fiction home page)

“God is in the details.” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

“Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.” John Gardner

“The image of Wilson, though not extraordinary, is specific and vivid; we recognize that we’re dealing with a careful author, one worth our trust.” John Gardner

“Rhode’s eye, like any fine novelist’s, is accurate both about literary details (where one’s feet touch on a porch swing) and about metaphorical equivelancies.” John Gardner

“Stay with the detail.” John Steinbeck

“In other words, by selecting the right detail, the writer subtly suggests others; the telling detail tells more than it says.” John Gardner

“Slow but sure, piling detail on detail until a picture and an experience emerge. Until the whole throbbing thing emerges.” John Steinbeck

“Must take time in description, detail, detail, looks, clothes, gestures.” John Steinbeck

“I said earlier that the writer who works closely with detail—studying his characters’ most trivial gestures in the imagined scene to discover exactly where the scene must go next—is the writer most likely to persuade and awe us.” John Gardner

“If in reading Faulkner we have almost the sense of inhabiting Yoknapatawpha County during the decline of the South, it is because the details used are definite, the terms concrete. It is not that every detail is given—that would be impossible, as well as to no purpose—but that all the significant details are given, and with such accuracy and vigor that readers, in imagination, can project themselves into the scene.” Strunk and White

“Art which is not a trifle, consists of trifles.” Michelangelo Buonarroti

“I think you will find that, in most cases, your first visualized details will be the truest and best.” Stephen King

“Point out details that will create a ‘word snapshot.’” Othello Bach

“Movement fast but the detail slow as always.” John Steinbeck

“When you pass a grocer sitting in his doorway, or a concierge smoking his pipe, or a cab-stand, show me that grocer and that concierge, the way they are sitting or standing, their entire physical appearance, making it by the skillfulness of your portrayal embody all their moral nature as well, so that I cannot confuse them with any other grocer or any other concierge. And make me see, by means of a single word, wherein one cab-horse does not resemble the fifty others ahead of it or behind it.” Gustave Flaubert

“Imaginary worlds—huge thoughts made up of concrete detail—so rich and complex, and so awesomely simple, that we are astounded, as we’re always astounded by great art.” John Gardner

“The novel’s unashamed engagement with the world—the myriad details that make character come alive, the sustained fascination with the gossip surrounding the lives of imaginary beings, the naïve emphasis on what happened next and what, precisely, the weather was that day.” John Gardner

“The writer pays close attention, in constructing the scene, to the relationships, in each of its elements, of emphasis and function. By emphasis we mean the amount of time spent on a particular detail; by function we mean the work done by that detail within the scene and the story as a whole.” John Gardner

“With rare exceptions the character’s feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events—action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting.” John Gardner

“It is the peculiar burden of the fiction writer that he has to make one country do for all and that he has to evoke that one country through the concrete particulars of a life that he can make believable.” Flannery O’Connor.

“Fog-bound. I mean you never see a face. You know what they’re thinking but not what they look like or where they came from or where they’re going to or how their thinking relates to anything. Most peculiar . . .” Flannery O’Connor critiquing a friend’s story

“With regard to what happens to Emma in the rest of the novel, we may think that it makes no difference that the instrument has buzzing strings or that the clerk wears list slippers and has a piece of paper in his hand, but Flaubert had to create a believable village to put Emma in. It is always necessary to remember that the fiction writer is much less immediately concerned with grand ideas and bristling emotions than he is with putting list slippers on clerks.” Flannery O’Connor

“The novel works by slower accumulation of detail than the short story does. The short story requires more drastic procedures than the novel because more has to be accomplished in less space. The details have to carry more immediate weight. In good fiction, certain of the details will tend to accumulate meaning from the story itself, and when this happens, they become symbolic in their action.” Flannery O’Connor

“If you want to say that the wooden leg is a symbol, you can say that. But it is a wooden leg first, and as a wooden leg it is absolutely necessary to the story. It has its place on the literal level of the story, but it operates in depth as well as on the surface. It increases the story in every direction, and this is essentially the way a story escapes being short.” Flannery O’Connor

“I know that the writer does call up the general and maybe the essential through the particular.” Flannery O’Connor

“I have found that the stories of beginning writers usually bristle with emotion, but whose emotion is often very hard to determine. Dialogue frequently proceeds without the assistance of any characters that you can actually see, and uncontained thought leaks out of every corner of the story. The reason is usually that the student is wholly interested in his thoughts and emotions and not in his dramatic action, and that he is too lazy or highfalutin to descend to the concrete where fiction operates. He thinks that judgment exists in one place and sense-impression in another. But for the fiction writer, judgment begins in the details he sees and how he sees them.” Flannery O’Connor

“Fiction writers who are not concerned with these concrete details are guilty of what Henry James called ‘weak specification.’ The eye will glide over their words while the attention goes to sleep. Ford Madox Ford taught that you couldn’t have a man appear long enough to sell a newspaper in a story unless you put him there with enough detail to make the reader see him.” Flannery O’Connor

“However, to say that fiction proceeds by the use of detail does not mean the simple, mechanical piling-up of detail. Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be put to work for you. Art is selective. What is there is essential and creates movement.” Flannery O’Connor

“But to get on to ‘Summer Dust’—it’s a good example I guess of what you would call an impressionistic short story. You read it and then you have to sit back and let your mind blend it together—like those pictures you have to get so far away from before they come together. She is a great student of Flaubert and is great on getting things there so concretely that they can’t possibly escape.” Flannery O’Connor

“If you are going to have a character appear in a story long enough to sell a newspaper, he’d better be real enough that you can smell his breath.” Ford Madox Ford

“Observe specific detail and draw for the reader a picture in words of that object or that person . . . even the slightest thing contains a little that is unknown. We must find it.”  Flaubert.

“If my story is set in Chicago in 1995, I can assume that my readers have some general idea of the time and place and how things work there, and can fill in the picture from the barest hints.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“Making the information part of the story is a learnable skill. As always, a good part of the solution consists simply in being aware that there is a problem.” Ursula K. Le Guin

“The number of concrete details proper to include in a scene depends on its scale.” Ayn Rand

“Balzac is so sure that every detail must be known, down to the vases on the mantelpiece or the pots and pans in the cupboard, that his reader cannot begin to question it. . . . indeed, Balzac’s confident way is not one that would give good results in most hands; it would produce the kind of description that the eye travels over unperceivingly, the conscientious introduction that tells us nothing. Yet Balzac contrives to make it tell everything; and the simple explanation is that he, more than anyone else, knows everything. The place exists in his thought; it is not to him the mere sensation of a place, with cloudy corners, uncertain recesses, which only grow definite as he touches and probes them with his phrases. A writer of a different sort, an impressionist who is aware of the effect of a scene rather than of the scene itself, proceeds inevitably after another fashion.” Percy Lubbock

“His [Balzac’s] deliberate approach to the action, through the picture of the house and its inmates, has achieved its purpose; it has given him the effect which the action most demands and could least acquire by itself, the effect of time.” Percy Lubbock

“I find films generally fat and flabby, the result of all the details the movie frame has to include which the poem or the novel doesn’t.” John Fowles

“I try to be very careful about fitting details in with the general mood, or certainly in giving things like dress color or speech patterns a symbolic value.” John Fowles

“Because of this higher level of concrete detail, the scene is both more immediate and seems to proceed more slowly—we’re in real time, rather than in accelerated summary.” Madison Smartt Bell

“The power of any story lives in its details, the hard accurate image of specific action occurring at a certain precise moment.” Philip Gerard

“The devil, as usual, is in the details.” Philip Gerard

“One can feel sad or happy or bored or cross in a thousand ways: the abstract adjective says almost nothing. The precise gesture nails down the one feeling right for the moment. This is what is meant when writing teachers say that one should ‘show,’ not ‘tell.’ And this, it should be added, is all the writing teacher means. Good writers may ‘tell’ about almost anything in fiction except the character’s feelings. One may tell the reader that the character went to private school (one need not show a scene at the private school if the scene has no importance for the rest of the narrative), or one may tell the reader that the character hates spaghetti; but with rare exceptions the character’s feelings must be demonstrated: fear, love, excitement, doubt, embarrassment, despair become real only when they take the form of events—action (or gesture), dialogue, or physical reaction to setting. Detail is the lifeblood of fiction.” John Gardner

“I found myself, without being able to help it, in a study of my beloved wife’s face, systematically noting the colors.” Eduard Manet [of his wife on her deathbed]