Details in Books (Basically, How My Favorite Books Show and Don’t Tell)


| introduction

My professor gave us this instruction for a writing assignment:

Begin and end the story with tangible images or action, not abstract thoughts.

And of course my INFJ mind winced because I could hang with abstract thoughts all day. (The deep-down, oft-ignored Se danced with joy.) What’s wrong with abstract thoughts? Well, categorically, nothing.

But it’s true: When I look back at my favorite books, I remember the stuff like a character’s quirky hairdo or a fascinating piece of worldbuilding. I may remember themes—I love themes—but really, it’s the “tangible images and action” that brings those themes to life and imprint them on my heart. 

We’ve all heard it: “show, don’t tell.” But am I the only one who throws their hands up and wonders how exactly you do that? Maybe it should be obvious, but what does it look like to show instead of telling? Of course, the answer is to turn to your favorite books. See how they do it. Observe what kind of “tangible images or action” they use.

This is more than a writing assignment. This a celebration of the books I love and the details that make them come alive. It is for writers who, like me, want to make their words matter. It is for readers who, like me, want to uncover more gems in their favorites.

So here we go: a list of concrete, physical images and actions in my favorite books.

*cue Gandalf’s big bad Mordor voice*

| details as icons: fantasy

The best and most obvious example of what I’m thinking of is the ring in Lord of the Rings. It’s a physical object that becomes the embodiment of the story. Not only can you envision it clearly while you read, but when you step away from books and happen upon gold rings in the real world, it brings the tale of Middle-Earth to mind.

That’s the key to these items and scenes I’m talking about: they infuse everyday objects with the memories and emotions of the story they inhabit. When you see them in your own life, you immediately think of the book they represent.

When I see a lamppost, I think of Narnia. When I pick up handkerchiefs in antique stores, I think of Bilbo in The Hobbit. When I walk by stacks of pewter bowls in a department store, I grin and flex my arms and think of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.

These are all fantasy examples, and it’s interesting to note that this incorporation of common objects into story emblems is a trope of the speculative genre in general (in all mediums, film included—a blue police box, anyone?). This is fantasy’s most beautiful and valuable offering: the ability to transform our seemingly mundane world by helping us see it in a different way.

Leonardo Di Caprio being Cool™

| details as icons: novels

But that’s a blog post for a different time. Let’s look to the classics now. Think about the lasting, provocative power of these images: a white whale, a scarlet letter, a green light at the end of the dock. What if those specific, vivid details were exchanged for abstract concepts?

If Herman Melville wrote about a “big, fearsome beast” or Nathaniel Hawthorn described Hester Prynne as walking around “shamefaced” or F. Scott Fitzgerald described Gatsby “longing for Daisy and thinking about her day and night”—if they had reduced their tangible images to general ideas, would we remember the stories as we do? Would they leave an imprint on our souls?

Maybe they would; it’s merely speculation. But what is not speculation is the fact that when I see a picture of a whale, particularly a pale-colored one, I shudder a little. When I see a fancy letter, particularly an A, embossed somewhere, I hear Hawthorne’s ringing cry in my mind: “Be true! Be true! Be true!” And sometimes at night when a light turns green, I think about a lonely man pining away and wonder what impossible dream I am pinning my hopes on.

Take the very end of The Giver: Instead of simply “walking toward the light” or experiencing a vague feeling of “light and warmth and freedom,” Lois Lowry describes the shocking cold of the snow and the exhilaration of flying downhill on a sled (the red sled itself is a kind of icon); Jonas hears the sound of singing and sees a house with lit windows. The whole scene is a sensory feast. It portrays “light and warmth and freedom” more clearly and with more emotional power than simply saying those words would have.

Basically: Themes have the greatest emotional impact when they are grounded in physical details. (Again, take the example of a gold ring that feels heavier than it looks.)

so much angst

| details as entertainment: characters

But okay, it’s not always about the big, deep stuff. (Another INFJ wince.) Tangible details make the heart of a story stick—they hammer home the emotional and philosophical elements of books. But they also enhance the entertainment aspect. They make stories fun.

Consider characters, most people’s favorite part of books. All you need is one specific detail to make them come alive. I can list just one physical characteristic and you’ll know whom I’m talking about:

• red braids

• a lightning scar

• a handlebar mustache

• a pointy gray hat

• “fine eyes”

• a sister with brown braids and a sister with gold curls

(Let me know in the comments if you got all those—and if you have any to add to test me. =D)

There’s more: Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow is bald young; Christopher Paolini’s Angela has a mass of curly hair. Annabeth has a Yankees baseball cap that makes her turn invisible (I WANT), and Piper has those little braids. Who can forget Reepicheep’s saber and tail or Lucy’s cordial? Good grief, N. D. Wilson’s Sam Miracle has snake arms. There is also, of course, Eugenides’ hook in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series.

i still haven’t given up trying to convince you all to read this series 0=)

| details as entertainment: worldbuilding

Also, can we talk about worldbuilding? The two best in this area, in modern fantasy, are J. K. Rowling and Brandon Sanderson. Both shine in their creation of unique details. In Sanderson’s The Stormlight Archive, I love the inventions of safehands, the currency system of spheres, and the different colored wines in Alethkar. In his Mistborn series, coins hitting pavement, ash falling from the sky, and dark spires piercing the mist are clear, mood-setting images.

Rowling’s world is irresistible because she “magics” every detail, from mail (owls & Howlers) to transportation (brooms & Apparating & Floo powder) to school lists (sizes and kinds of cauldrons & pets & magical textbooks). And notice, I’m not even talking about either of these authors’ magic systems, both of which are brilliant. I’m just talking about the details of the worlds, of everyday life.

This ties into the next topic: that vital but allusive concept of relatability or “feeling real.” You know, the way books make your bedroom walls disappear and replace them with their world. They way they make you laugh out loud. Again, the devil—or rather, the delight—is in the details.

One of my most favorite books is Gary D. Scmidt’s Okay For Now, and it is full of these little, everyday moments that make the story leap off the page. They are moments that feel true, and they make whole story feel true, which makes me then care about the characters, and then I’m laughing and crying with them and before you know it I have absorbed this book into my life and it changes me.

And there I go, off into abstraction. Here are some of the details in Okay For Now that give it truth: drinking a really cold Coke, practicing screaming for a part in a play by imagining how you would feel at a really tense moment in a Yankees game, the weird quirk of a teacher who has a rocking horse (the faster it rocks, the happier the teacher is), how everyone hates banana bread. I haven’t actually experienced any of these things (except for the banana bread) but because they are so specific and physical I can still believe in them.

Photographers Discuss Favourite Taste the Feeling Images Lead
i think in the books it was coke cans, not bottles? but who cares

| details as entertainment: physical responses

There’s one more way details make reading fun, and that’s by creating a physical sensation in you.

This one is a little hard to describe, because I think wildly different scenes cause this to happen in different people. Here’s my example: there’s this scene in The Silver Chair where Jill Pole is at the giant’s castle and she’s going to bed. Before that, she has to take a bath. Because everything is made for giants, the bath is as big as a swimming pool and the towels are as long as rugs.

I was around nine years old when my dad read this book to me, and I still remember how I could feel the warm water and the scratchiness of the towels. I was literally jittery at the idea at being able to swim in the bath and roll around as crazily as you wanted on a towel.

I’m not sure I would have the same reaction if I encountered that scene for the first time today; that’s the fun of books, that they impact you differently at different times in your life. But the point is, certain scenes can produce physical reactions in us. They elevate our participation in the story from intellectual and emotional enjoyment to actual physical response. They literally make the story come alive. And, you guessed it, that can’t happen without details. Case in point, giant-sized bathtub and towels.

The same thing happened when my mom read the Little House on the Prairie to me. I still feel a shiver of both coziness and excitement when I think about Laura looking through the different colors of calico fabric for a new dress or watching Ma dye cheese by soaking carrots and squeezing the orange liquid into the milky mixture. I don’t know why those two vignettes stuck with me, but they have. And I know I’m not the only one whose stomach actually growled at her descriptions of meals in Farmer Boy.

i haven’t watched this show in forever 0.o

| in conclusion

Here, dear readers, is my attempt to tie these rambling threads together: My professor is right, “tangible images and actions” matter. They can be:

• an actual object central to the story (the gold bug in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Gold Bug)

• a mundane scene that evokes a physical response (the the way my mouth waters at the descriptions of different sandwiches Mrs. Murray makes in A Wrinkle in Time)

• a defining trait of a character (Lord Peter Wimsey’s monocle)

• a glimpse into everyday life that makes a story feel real (how Mrs. Weasley does the cooking and cleaning with magic)

Their uses vary but the point is the same: they are specific, vivid, tangible details without which the story would be flat and forgettable. For someone like me, who can easily slip into philosophical ponderings and abstract characterizations, this is vital to remember.

Even if you aren’t a writer, noting the details that make your favorite books come alive will help you appreciate them more. Maybe it will even help you determine what it is about books that draw you in so you can find more with those attributes.


| your turn

These objects and scenes have been piling up in the storehouse of my mind for years now, and I’m fascinated by why they’re still there. I’m fascinated by how these images from stories have slowly changed the way I see and experience things in real life. And I’m fascinated by the fact that we each have a slightly different collection.

Which is where I want to end of this: what are some things from books (or movies) that stand out to you, that made the story come alive? They can be big or small, popular or unnoticed by all but you.

And honestly—is what I’m saying even making sense? I mean, have you noticed that there are certain images or scenes you can’t forget? Am I the only one who wonders how to show, not tell?

Basically, let’s chat about books and writing and all of it. Thanks for listening to my rambling. ❤

9 responses to “Details in Books (Basically, How My Favorite Books Show and Don’t Tell)”

  1. What a great post! Being an INFJ myself I often struggle with not falling off into abstract thought but rather representing my ideas with symbols. And I loved the symbols you gave as examples! A lamppost always makes me think of Narnia. Symbols really do stick with us. Great post! I’ll definitely be referring back to it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much! I’m glad I’m not the only one out there who gets caught up in the abstract. *high-fives my fellow INFJ* =D Not that the abstract is always bad, but like you said, it’s the symbols that stick with us. I’m glad it was helpful!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Aberdeen, this blew me away. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of tangible details this way and I 100% agree with your thoughts; I really want to try it out. Oh goodness, I had the same reactions to Silver Chair & Little House — so good. And I got most of the characters, but I’m stumped on the handlebar mustache; sounds like a detective so Poirot?? “Fine eyes,” yes though. xD One for you: violin. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Maria! That’s so cool that you had the same reactions to The Silver Chair & Little House. Okay, now that I actually think about it I don’t think it’s actually handlebar mustache? I need to research my mustaches (and characters). For some reason that’s the description that popped into my head first. But anyway, yes, you’re correct: it’s Poirot. =D I’m so glad you got “fine eyes.” =P Oooh. *suddenly feels nervous* Sherlock?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yay! And yep you’re right, nice job xD

        Liked by 1 person

  3. a random assortment of thoughts I had while reading your post:

    >first of all YES i super agree with the needing physical/tangible details thing in writing bc i also struggle with getting off on a huge abstract tangent when writing and then ironically losing a lot of the soul-elevating goodness
    (ha, see, gnostics, the spiritual can be seen in the physical).

    >ok but now that you mention it the tardis gets described a *lot* in dw hmmm

    >I feel like this topic might be more pertinent to books bc obviously movies are a visual medium and thus physical/tangible details are more obvious but I still find that movies where a lot of care is put into the production design draw me in more than movies where the eye just skims over what’s expected in the background. E.g., Harry Potter & LOTR had stunning visual translations of what was in the books. OH, also, for superhero movies, Wonder Woman had some stunning production detail that also drew me in a lot (also the set/costumes in Black Panther)(and some Doctor Strange)

    >ok i have a hate/love thing for little house on the prairie (shoot me) but YES the food descriptions in Farmer Boy are 100% my favorite part

    >in conclusion (even tho I don’t write a lot currently), whenever I’m writing and not sure how to express a feeling or thought, I try to think ‘how can I physically describe the sensation/feeling’ vs ‘super lengthy description of the feeling/sensation.’ one can definitely over-write physical details as well, but having skimmed a lot of fanfiction, a genre which definitely struggles in this regard, I can say that I would much rather have tangible details than just continuous stream of consciousness and thought.

    >also not only am I a terrible reader but I am terrible at physical details so your list put me to shame (handlebar mustache???? fine eyes??? *12th Doctor squint*)

    Anyway, thank you for this post, it was a lovely read and a very true and helpful assessment.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. *also in my movie comment i forgot to mention the stunning and definitive visual styles of movies like Star Wars (!!!!!) or Alien or The Matrix

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Ahhh your reply made me so happy. =D Responses to your thoughts:

      – I’m so glad I’m not the only one who gets off on abstract tangents. *laughs at your comment to the gnostics* Seriously, though, to get on a bit of an abstract tangent, it’s such a lie that the physical is inherently inferior to or morally worse than the “spiritual” (probably depends on how you’re defining spiritual, because the physical itself can be spiritual). ANYWAY.

      – I totally agree about movies. I focused on books because I’m trying to figure out how to write better and because, like you said, it’s harder in books to think about the visual aspects. But details are still super important for movies. All the ones you mentioned are so captivating because the details of the world in them are so vivid. I remember hearing that Star Wars was such a big deal because everything looked dirty and lived-in; sci-fi up to that point was very sterile and sparse.

      – also we need to talk about Little House sometime because I’d love to hear your thoughts. And I won’t shoot you. xD

      – that’s really interesting that as a reader, you prefer tangible details instead of always stream of consciousness. Good to remember as a writer. That’s also a good question I need to remember, “how can I physically describe the sensation/feeling?”

      – haha, you’re fine, I’m not so sure now it’s a handlebar mustache but it was supposed to refer to Poirot. xP And “fine eyes” is for Elizabeth Bennett; that’s how Mr. Darcy describes them.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed reading this, and thanks again for your comment!


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