How Do I Get Back into a Story?

Quoth Anonymous: “I know I should write every day, but with my job and life, I just can’t. It’s hard to get back into whatever I was writing if I’m away for a few days. How can I dive in again?”

Mermaid at Weeki-Watchee, photographed by Toni Frissell for Harper's Bazaar, December 1947
Photo by Toni Frissell, published in Harper’s Bazaar, December 1947

I was about to start this reply by saying, “Yes, in a perfect world, you’d be able to work on that story every day,” but the more I’m thinking about it, I’m not sure that really is a perfect world. There’s something to be said for taking a step back for your subconscious to do some work…but not for too long.

My best stories seem to come to me as a kind of dream, a state of absorption where I write quickly and instinctively without much doubt. Some people call that a “flow” state, and it’s easy to begin believing that anything written OUTSIDE that state is too difficult or not going well.

To me, the issue is really how to return to the fictive dream of your story, sinking back in so that distractions go away and you are able to once again feel what the next reasonable story moment should be.

I’m not great at doing that, but here are some things that have worked for me:

  • Expect some amount of gear-grinding when returning to a story and be patient with it. The first couple of days are likely to feel a little rough, but they’re only going to feel worse if you pause the project again.
  • Commit to one project at a time. I once thought that I could write several stories at once and just dive into the one I “felt” the most at a given moment, but that generates a lot of fragments that never quite get finished. Tell yourself that one way or another, you’re going to finish this story, even if it’s lousy.
  • Use physical cues to get back into the mindset of working: a certain place, a certain time, a certain desk, a certain word processing program. It’s possible to get TOO attached to the tools as an excuse not to write when they aren’t available, but you need something that tricks your brain into shutting out the world and getting to work.
  • I’ve found setting a timer to be useful, telling myself that I can do nothing but work on the story during that time.
  • Meditation has helped me as well, believe it or not. Take a few moments with your eyes closed and mentally immerse yourself into a creative space. I even have a mantra of keywords to remember in my work, like “Immersion. Performance. Voice. Specificity. Detail.”
  • Sooner or later, you’re going to have to open the document or notebook where the moribund story lives. This is a great time to read through as much of it as you can to get back into the sound of its voice and the rhythm of its sentences. Reading it aloud can help with this, and so can retyping a few paragraphs of the story or re-writing them out by hand.
  • One trick that almost always works for me at the beginning of a session is to write, “So what the fuck is going on?” at the top of a page and answer my own question: summarizing the story so far, mulling through any challenges, talking through where to go next. It sounds silly, but I think you fix writing problems by writing AROUND them.

A lot of that probably sounds self-indulgent, the kind of thing that whiskey-drinking real authors would say is too precious, but for me, the key to creating a good story is feeling it, role-playing my way through it, committing to it with total absorption.

I think the number one thing to remember is not to expect to dive into a story in thirty seconds, whether you worked on it yesterday or a month ago. Imagine yourself settling deep into the pool of your work, letting it surround you and become your reality for as long as you can.

Sigh. Where Do You Get Ideas?

Quoth Anonymous: I know we’re not supposed to ask this because it seems amateurish, but where do you get your ideas?

There’s a certain kind of writer bully who loudly pretends that “professionals” like them don’t have the luxury of ideas: they just sit down and invent a character and go. 

Hey, dumbfuck. That’s an idea.

When assholes like that shit on “ideas,” it’s usually because they think some kinds of idea (mostly situations) are less pure or literary than others (say, a character or a beautiful line of prose or the yearning of the human heart).

Guys like that (and most of your English teachers) think Herman Melville sat down, cracked his knuckles, and whispered, “destructive obsession” to himself before diving into Moby Dick.

More likely, he woke up in the middle of the night thinking, “Wouldn’t it be ripshit to see a guy all tangled in harpoon lines and lashed to the side of an enormous breaching whale? And his arm could be free, kinda waving even though he’s dead? Fuck yeah.”

(Note: I’m no Melville scholar, and I’m aware there was already an incident that also inspired him. But you KNOW he had to see that image, too. Ideas are never just one thing.)

The reason it’s not super useful to talk about where ideas come from is that they come from everywhere if you’re the kind of perceptive and curious person you should be as a writer.

I’ve gotten story ideas from:

  • An episode of This American Life (“Remembrance is Something Like a House”)
  • A credulous 70s TV show about weird shit (“In Search Of”)
  • An image of ghostly people walking in a line at an abandoned asylum (“The Ghost Factory”)
  • An image of a giant hollow tree stump (“Acres of Perhaps”)
  • A quick joke tweet that I quickly deleted (“Night Fever”)

By themselves, those glimmers of interest weren’t super useful, though early in my writing practice, I tried to spread concepts like them very thinly over the forced structure of a story. Which inevitably failed.

Why? Because ideas, like you, are always collisions of at least two things that only you can reconcile.

That’s why it doesn’t do much good to wait for ideas or dwell on them too long: you are already a teeming cauldron of unique things only you can write about, if you’re brave enough to combine the easy superficial ideas with the tougher personal ones.  

My story “The Leaning Lincoln” is a collision of these things:

  • I really liked action figures as a kid.
  • My father was an abusive asshole, losing control of himself as our fortunes faded.
  • My father’s friend gave me a lead figurine of Abraham Lincoln that had cooled too quickly and was stooped.
  • A lot of weird bad luck happened after I got it.
  • That guy later murdered his attorney.

That’s pretty dramatic, I grant, and it feels inevitable now as a story. But when I started, all I knew was I wanted to write about a cursed lead figure. I had to force myself to connect that idea more deeply to my own experiences.

I had to wait to submit that story until my father died because I was legitimately concerned he would sue me.

What do you DO with those ideas? My advice is to go wide and deep:

  • Wide to encounter a lot of different things that amaze, anger, and otherwise stimulate you.  
  • Deep to connect those things as metaphors to what you love and hate and fear inside yourself (experiences, passions, regrets, mistakes, triumphs).

In preparation for that future column, here’s an exercise I’ve used from time to time to nudge my brain into action.

  1. Grab as many blank index cards as you can.
  2. As quickly as you can, write one thing you love or hate or find interesting on as many of them as you can. For example, my deck includes cards that say, “Twin Peaks” and “Zodiac” and “Vintage Computers” and “Cthulhu” and “Ghosts” and “Porsche 914” and “Running” and “UFOs” and “Gone Girl” and “True Crime” and “Gay Culture Folkways” and “Journalism.”  
  3. Then on other index cards, write a series of times and/or places that you have either experienced or find interesting. Some of mine are, “1970s New York” and “1980s Florida” and “1960s California” and “Ainger Creek” and “Marston Science Library.”
  4. Shuffle those decks either together or separately.
  5. If you kept them separate, pull ONE time/place and TWO love/hate cards. Otherwise, just pick three cards.
  6. Write down the equation that results.
    • Boy Scout Camp + Zodiac + 1980s Florida
    • Gay culture folkways + psychic children + 19th Century Norway
    • Giant Squids + Kennedy Assassination + Shenandoah Valley

You’re going to get a lot of weird shit, and that’s the point. You are using these cards not to tell you what to write about but to get you thinking of what flows BETWEEN them. Don’t take them too literally.

Okay, they won’t all be gold. But give them a chance.

I can guarantee at least a few will excite you with a shiver of recognition as though they have existed inside you for years.

That’s because they have. And now we’re cracking them out to set them free.

How Do I Stay Edgy But Keep Readers?


Thank you for the insightful question. I think that’s something we all worry about, except maybe the people who sell pablum.

You seem to feel strongly about your artistic vision, which I’m guessing is a largely intuitive one with which you improvise to create stories. You see something, it glimmers at you, and you integrate it in your story because you trust your mind’s eye.

To me, that’s probably the purest way to create art, and I admire it deeply.

For a variety of neurotic reasons, however, I’m someone who is driven to entertain people…which makes me either the worst person to answer your question or the best.

I’m nominally a horror writer in that my work tends to include people with fractured perceptions coping with a universe that seems eerily tuned to their exact emotional weaknesses. My work sometimes includes violence, rarely gory or sexual but usually a more internal kind, a personal kind.

For example, a ghost story to me is the gossip of the dead, and the way a spirit haunts a person’s mind is far more interesting to me than the mechanics of how it’s anchored to an old fucked up house.

Most of my stories are experiments, both on the people living inside the story and the ones reading it. I just…like that. The instrument I’m playing with my fiction is the people, not the phenomena or the objects.

You might start somewhere else, perhaps with visual and auditory imagery. You see a curtain of trees or a crumbled factory, and they hint at something deeper than what they are. Some people might want to define and confine that meaning, to explain it, but I suspect you’re more of the “hey, look at this crazy shit” school of artistic expression.

Moment from Twin Peaks S3, Episode 8 with a creature entering a woman's mouth.
You know, like this guy does.

Which I would never talk you out of. In fact, I could use more of that in my own work; I’m tempted too often to explain the mysterious…which ruins it.

To make your work marginally more approachable without sacrificing your vision, I would suggest creating a lens character: someone with whom we travel through these liminal spaces who can perceive (unreliably, of course) the terrible, wondrous things you are showing us.

I’d make this character somewhat more sensitive than an ordinary person so we can see and feel more of what he or she is experiencing, and I’d provide him or her a deep personal history so there are lots of hooks you can use for making the horrors more directly damaging. I’ve written before that weird is normal and normal is cliché, and this person should have plenty of weird.

I think you’ll do okay with that.

One thing you’ll have to keep in mind, especially as a creator more accustomed to manipulating mood and setting than characters, is that your readers are probably going to like this character. We’re going to feel their hurts more because we’re wired that way in our monkey minds.

That means that whatever you do to this character will have a higher impact on an audience. A muted note of horror will sound like a tuba blast when it happens to them, and that’s worth keeping in mind as you control the tone of your story.

That character is the audience’s raw nerve, and whatever you do with that access should probably be more deliberate than your strictly intuitive approach. You may have to consider a second or third idea for their fate instead of leaping on the first. That’s not compromising your vision…it’s just understanding the tool you’re using to express it.  

Now it’s entirely possible that you want to express the nihilistic emptiness of all existence and the hopelessness of love and the futility of evolution. That’s fine; stomp on that raw nerve, put that character’s arm in a blender, throw them through a windshield, kill them off and damn them to hell.

But accept that the work won’t be “approachable” and be cool with that.

What this all means is that characters aren’t just objects in a story like sofas or forests or bloody hatchets…at least not to readers. They suffer, yes. They don’t all get happy endings. Maybe none of them do, if that’s your model of the universe.

But in a work that’s otherwise subtle, you need to remember the power you wield through them.

For me, that risk is worth the huge benefit of audience sympathy. Not all my stories have happy endings, but I try to make them interesting endings: moments of realization or transformation, even if they’re short-lived and wrong.

I don’t think I feed people pablum, but I try not to feed them flaming aircraft fuel, either.

The good news is that we don’t have to choose one or the other.

I hope that helps!

How Can I Level Up in My Work?

Quoth Anonymous: Sometimes people refer to “turning a corner” in the writing of their fiction, like they’re leveling up. What does that mean and how do I do it on purpose?

Wow, Anonymous, you’ve eerily picked the exact best moment to ask this question because fifteen years ago on this very day, I submitted a story that was the beginning of my OWN turning point.

What a coincidence!

“Turning a corner” is when your skill takes a significant leap forward that feels sudden but almost certainly isn’t. It means that you’ve realized something about how you work and learned to apply it in a way that produces a noticeable increase in “quality,” whatever that means.

Maybe the work is simply better written or easier to follow or more personal or filled with deeper feeling.

With luck, you’ll turn corners several times in your writing career or at the very least, you’ll make a long slow arc toward improving with every new work. But sometimes it feels like it comes suddenly, and that’s what we’re talking about today.

What’s required for a turn? Let me share my experience:

A punch in the face that destroys your creative complacency…

On the first day of critiquing manuscripts at my six-week Clarion experience in 2006, one of my submission stories was among the first we discussed. We hadn’t had time yet to write onsite, so this was one that had gotten me ACCEPTED to Clarion in the first place.

That story received a critical curb-stomping so savage that its broken teeth are still probably lodged in the carpet of that room at Michigan State. I’d like to think it had a little to do with nervous people trying to show their editing chops, but my story may well have been the cosmic affront to all literature as everyone said it was.

Enter the Hexagon! Twenty writers enter…and twenty writers leave, slightly less happy.

After my twenty-one peers had each had their say, all I could do was thank them in a warbling voice and say that I was here at Clarion exactly to write better stories.

That night, I walked around campus embarrassed and angry. For the previous decades, I’d been told by dozens of teachers that I was a good writer, not because I was a good writer but because I was a better writer than their many students who didn’t give a shit about writing. I’d taken their praise literally and managed to learn nothing to improve.

I’d needed more punches in the face and fewer pats on the back.

(Not literally. I got plenty from my father.)

…followed by a dark night of the soul…

This step may be optional if, unlike me, you’re not a neurotic mess trying to justify his existence on the Earth by entertaining other people.

I spent time in the MSU library writing in my journal about whether I was meant to write or whether I should take the hint and go on to something I was better at. Unfortunately, years of caring mostly about writing meant this was probably the best bet I had.

Unsure what to do, I called my friend Jason to give him an update on how Clarion was going. On my way to Michigan, I’d stopped to see him and some other friends in South Carolina and showed them some photos of an abandoned mental asylum I’d broken into earlier in the year. It had been a creepy place.

Yes, that’s an actual picture.

Jason listened to my dilemma and said, “Next time those people give you shit, look around that room and ask yourself which of them has the sack to break into an abandoned fucking mental asylum. Then consider THEIR advice.”

Which, yeah, put some things in context for me. No, not to ignore them…just to remember that I was the one with skin in this game, and I had to choose what I took on as criticism.

Really, this phase of your turn is figuring out if you’re willing to commit to doing what it will take to improve your work.

…and then an honest assessment of what you’re doing badly…

I suspect a lot of new writers get so hung up on whether they’re “good” or “bad” at writing in general that they don’t consider the many gradations between. It’s easier to throw up our hands and say we suck than to look at our work page by page to see exactly how.

Luckily, this guy was around to tell me EXACTLY what was wrong with my work.

When you refocus from yourself as the problem (“I don’t deserve to be a writer”) toward the story as the problem (“What can I fix here?”), that’s when a turn can happen.

For me, the issues my peers detected (and that I agreed with) seemed to be that I was too quick to avoid feelings with humor, my narration was too cold and mean, there wasn’t enough detail to feel like a story, and I couldn’t plot to save my life.

That sounded about right to me.

…and what you’re doing well…

In my journal at the library, I grudgingly allowed that I was pretty good at dialogue and at imitating people’s voices. Oh, and insinuating stories for readers out of fake found documents.

…so you can consciously practice to improve.

I call this stage “Fix It or Fuck It”: are you going to make changes to your technique, or are you going to write around them?

I did a little of both. I began to emphasize emotion, perception, detail, and experience in my stories, and I also experimented with voices that weren’t exactly like mine to tell them idiosyncratically.

Plotting…I let that ship sail. But not immediately, because I wrote four more terrible stories at Clarion where I tried to follow the advice we were getting about structure. For my last story, I just gave up and submitted a fake set of theater reviews for the apocalypse written by Dorothy Parker.

The feeling when I submitted that story was, “Fuck it. I’m going to keep doing what I do, only better each time,” which was Kelly Link’s advice to me during the last two weeks of the workshop.

It helped, too, that I wrote the story for a very specific audience, taking on the empathy to entertain her specifically. That became another principle in my new practice: imagining what an audience would find interesting or pleasurable or scary.

On a thunderstorm-y afternoon, my story was the last for critique…and almost everyone seemed to love it. Perhaps that had less to do with the quality of the story than their relief that I hadn’t wasted six weeks of our time, but I was happy either way.

That was the story that started the turn. I mean “started” very slightly, like maybe 5 degrees. But after that, I sold every story I wrote forever and ever.

No, alas, I didn’t. It took some more experimenting, and eventually there were two other stories as part of that turn toward what a “Will Ludwigsen story” would look and sound like. Some would call that “finding a voice,” which is not a term I like to use because each story has its own voice.

What I say instead is that sooner or later, we each find the kind of story that we can pull off semi-reliably because we’ve found ways to accentuate what we’re good at and to fake what we’re not.

That’s what a turn is: realizing that you can control what you write and then finding the next level of faking how to do it.

Why Do My Stories Feel All Out of Balance?

Quoth Anonymous: How do I balance the amount of description and dialogue and thoughts and things in my fiction? I feel like I go on a tear and overdo one way over the others for long passages.

You know how after a plane crashes, the National Transportation Safety Board assembles whatever pieces they recover in a hangar somewhere to see what happened? Sometimes you have to do that with your fiction, understanding its individual parts to see how they’re working (or not working) together.

Photo by Matheus Bertelli on

The parts you’re asking about here are sentences, and each one in your fiction is primarily doing one of these things:

  • Dialogue, for performing a character’s speech: “Holy shit,” he said. “Bayonets really hurt when they pierce your skin.”
  • Action, for performing a character’s motions in real time: Timothy lifted himself with shaking arms from the slick and spreading pool of blood beneath his open chest wound. 
  • Thoughts/Feelings, for conveying how a character is reacting to the situation: There was no way he’d make it to spaghetti night at the VFW by six, which was just one more reason for Ingrid to be pissed at him. 
  • Description, for focusing on an interesting or important element of the setting: He’d never noticed it before, but the linoleum floor in his grandmother’s kitchen wasn’t uniformly a shade of gastric green but also speckled with squares of a rancid mustard hue. He sniffed, wondering if they were actually mustard, but they reeked more like a half century of Grammy’s sour feet.
  • Summary, for conveying what happened without performing it: For the next several hours, Timothy dozed and woke and dozed again. He enjoyed the dozing more because his brain was trying to entertain him with the all-star hits of his life: winning the intramural pennant, that kiss under the pier on prom night, finding that issue of Hustler in the woods.   

Now this model is very general, of course, and it’s more descriptive than prescriptive: you shouldn’t be precisely planning the function of each sentence before you write it (though hey, why not if you want to try?).

The best-case scenario is to develop an ear for the way sentences sound as you write them so they’ll naturally balance, but that’s not an instinct we dropped down out of the trees with.

You’ll have to learn it somewhere, mostly by reading works like the one you want to write and noticing the balance that author strikes between each type of sentence. You can try to do that intuitively, or you can try something more structured like this:

  1. Pick up a book in the genre in which you’re writing. Preferably, it should be one that you actually enjoyed reading.
  2. Take out five highlighters.
  3. On the first page, draw one line with each color and label them DIALOGUE, THOUGHTS, SUMMARY, ACTION, and DESCRIPTION.
  4. Now start with a passage you admire and start highlighting based on what you think the primary purpose of each sentence happens to be. You’ll see very quickly how the author is (or isn’t) balancing each of these elements.

Identifying the functions of each sentence like this is more for debugging your work, discovering the specific reason(s) it doesn’t feel or sound right. Nobody’s life depends upon the accuracy of your assessment, so if you’re not sure what a sentence is doing, take your best guess.

We’re looking at ratios here, not landing a guy on the Moon.

Some of the books you highlight may be heavy on description, striving to provide an experience for the readers. Others may be heavy in dialogue, moving the story along quickly perhaps at the risk of losing a sense of living the story. Maybe there are lots of thoughts and feelings, an interiority for a narrator’s inner landscape like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye.

Another debugging (or educational) trick to try is the squint test: peer at a page at a distance where you can’t make out the individual words, just looking at the blocks. Are they big blocks, signifying a slower and more contemplative pace? Or are they small blocks, hinting that this is a section of quick action and reaction?

(By the way, going slow isn’t bad at all. Going slow is what gives people a sense of experiencing this story as real, and it’s a necessary for lulling people into what John Gardner called the ‘fictive dream.’)

The last suggestion I’ll offer is that it’s okay to take your time. When you’re drafting a story, you’re in a hurry to get it done. You’re framing the house. In subsequent drafts, you’re adding the details…and you shouldn’t be afraid to take a whole paragraph (Or two! Or three!) to set the scene or tell us what a character is feeling.

The writing goes slower than the reading, so your sense of pace is going to be off until you read it aloud. Most people I know (including me) start thin and have to bulk out the story so it feels real.

That may feel like a lot of work for something that felt like a simple question. The truest answer is that you’ll get a feel for that over time, especially if you’re perceptive with other people’s work and honest about your own.

But that answer sucks in the short term when you don’t have those instincts yet. Identifying the sentences may be a good way to develop them.  

How Do I Stick with a Story Even When It Seems to Suck?

Quoth “Serling”: I have long struggled with committing myself to any one idea. I’ve finished some stories but most were long ago. Ideas are not a problem; but as soon as I start working on one my enthusiasm dwindles and I abandon the tale for another. So I never accomplish much. How can I remain devoted to seeing a story through from start to finish?

Oh, Serling. Any writer who DOESN’T have a folder of abandoned titles, first lines, character sketches, first chapters, half-starts, or entire works is a sociopath. Perhaps a literal one, someone who thinks their every word is gold because they have no empathy for an audience.

The likely source of your problem is that you have an excess of this empathy, a sense of literary taste, which you are applying too early and too broadly.

To diagnose what’s going on here, I think you have to listen for the cause of your dwindling enthusiasm, which will likely be different by story. My dwindlers tend to be these:

  • I have no idea what to do next in this thing” is the most common for me because I’m an exploratory writer. My remedy is usually to write “What would be the next interesting thing that could happen in this story?” and talk myself through the plausible possibilities.
  • This story has gotten boring to write” is the second most common issue I have personally, and it usually comes when I forget (or lose touch with) what interested me in writing the story in the first place. This, too, I tend to solve with talking to myself in a journal, asking “What was the original appeal of this idea? A character? A situation? A setting? A feeling? How can I put more of that into the work?”
  • Something doesn’t feel right” is another thought that haunts me, and usually I track that down to fearing the inevitable stage of any creative work where it feels thin and flimsy, like only the skeleton of an idea. That’s a completely natural feeling, and it can only be cured by continuing to throw words at the story until you reach a critical mass of detail and feeling.
  • This story won’t be any good so to continue is a waste of time” comes up less often than it used to because of four quasi-Zen ideas I’ve been clinging to lately in my work:
    • This story will only suck if I decide to quit while it still does. I can fix almost anything, even if it means deleting everything but the three good words out of 10,000 that I’ve written so far.
    • Every story feels like a mess until a sudden shiver of recognition about 98% of the way through writing it.
    • My professional judgment about the whole story is suspect because I don’t have a whole story yet to judge. I just need to do the next good thing and rip out the previous bad one.
    • Who cares if I “waste” my time writing a story that doesn’t sell? It’s not like I’m neglecting dying children in my charity pediatric cancer practice for my writing.

There’s a lot of self-talk and journaling here, and I’m sure some tougher-minded professionals would scoff at that. They get their feedback from their peers or editors or agents or a bottle of gin, and I get some of mine from there, too.

(Not gin because I’m not an elderly man in the 1920s. Jameson’s.)

But when something goes wrong in my work, it is almost always a deviation from MY original intention or love, and another person can’t really help me with that. I have to go back to the source, spelunking down to the shriveled little weirdo in the center of my heart who sent this idea up to my brain in the first place.

To do this kind of inner dialogue means being a good writing friend to yourself. It means going from “This sucks and I’m a terrible writer” to “Huh. I wonder why this sucks and what we can do about it.” It means not taking any particular sentence or paragraph or even scene too seriously. It means seeing your work as an experiment you’re running instead of your last chance to be loved.

It means, most of all, telling yourself that the only way to fail at writing is to browbeat yourself out of doing it. 

One last idea I’ll leave you with is that all art in process makes a tremendous and terrifying mess. Go into any sculptor’s studio or baker’s kitchen and witness the excess required to make something beautiful.

This computer was designed by a genius and is the prototype of some of the most elegant machines ever invented. It’s in the Smithsonian now.

Writing is no different, and I would estimate that I’ve written about 10,000 earnest words of fiction for every one that’s been published. That’s not counting logs, journals, essays, blogs, letters, and hoaxed emails at work.

The novella I just finished is in its eighth version, counting a short story, a novel, a Master’s thesis, a revised novel, and a complete reboot. 

That’s just the cost of doing business. There are always second and third and fourth chances, and nobody has to see them until the one you like.

You just have to lessen the pressure on yourself until you get there.

What Level of Detail is Enough for Fiction That Feels Alive?

Quoth Anonymous: When I write fiction, it feels too thin, more like the outline of a story or a script of one. How do I know how much detail to put in so it feels more like a real story?

When I think of detail in fiction, I remember the model railroading books I liked to read as a kid.

Some people run a loop around a Christmas tree with a garish locomotive and shiny plastic cars, and they call it good. Others paint a sheet of plywood green and put out a few wooden block houses.

And then some go all out with miniature trees, tiny people, gravel under the tracks, and dust on the boxcars.

What fascinated me as a kid about model trains was this level of detail that felt almost impossible for me to achieve with my limited patience, ability, dexterity, and funds.

When I write fiction, I almost always have to go back and add more detail because I write first drafts so quickly and with a sense of relief to have finished them at all. One of my editing passes, then, is to add more details:

  • Setting paragraphs at the beginnings of scenes so readers have a sense of where they are: “Out beyond Route 91, the orange groves give way to vast fields of yellowed grass and palmetto bushes.”
  • Physical descriptions within the text itself, usually based on what the characters would likely perceive: “What I noticed first about him was that he had a tattoo of my wife on his arm, and she was shirtless.”
  • Emotional perceptions, including judgments about the environment: “Grandma’s house was always a hellhole growing up, with fleas surging at your ankles from the puke green carpet like they wanted you to rescue them.”
  • Emotional reactions: “So that’s what she thought, that I’d abandoned my son?”

When we talk about detail in fiction, it usually means some critical mass of specificity when the prose lulls the reader’s brain into experiencing the events you’re describing instead of just hearing them as a checklist. (John Gardner calls this ‘the fictive dream.’)

That critical mass is different for different readers, but the good news is that it’s actually lower than you might worry; we really just need enough detail to get our brains filling in the rest. That threshold depends upon a reader’s experience with the time, place, or subject.

If I want to simulate, say, a dorm room at the University of Florida, I can do that in several ways depending upon the reader’s experience:

  • For my sister who lived in South Hall eight years before I did, I can say, “a room on the third floor facing the Mudfest field,” and she’ll get it.
  • For a UF student (likely of the past), I might have to add a little more: “one of those old brick dorms from the 60s across from the O Dome on Stadium Road.”
  • For other people familiar with dorms or even governmental buildings, I might go a bit further and say, “The dorm could have been built anywhere from 1940 to 1970, with its interior concrete block walls thick with layers of institutional white paint, floors of speckled linoleum, and furniture built by IKEA’s prison labor division from a soft blond wood.”

How much is too much? That’s harder to say than how much is too little (where nobody can quite see or feel what’s going on), but one good way to know is by the perception of the characters. What do THEY notice about it? What do they interact with every day? What annoys them, touches them, sparks memory in them, or represents something to them?

A smudge on the wall at that dorm for one student is a reminder that this is worse than home, but for another, it means the spot where she painted a temporary mural with her best friend for spirit week.

So detail is really emotional specificity as much as physical specificity, perhaps more so. We see with our hearts more than our minds.

That means we see weird things.

In the first episode of Twin Peaks, there’s a moment that people thought was strange and absurd and pointless at the time where Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman go into a conference room at the police station and see a mounted buck’s head lying on the table because it fell off a wall.

“That’s so random,” people liked to say.

No, it isn’t. (Well, with Lynch, it might have been intuitively random.)

For one thing, that’s actually more realistic than a “normal” conference room in TV world because yeah, things fall off walls in the real world and people work around them.

For another, it says a lot about this place and its people:

  • Hunting (and perhaps by extension, the natural world) is important to them. Nobody’s weirded out or upset by a buck’s head.
  • Formality is not as important; it’s not odd to hang a trophy in a government office, nor is it odd to leave it there until someone gets a chance to hang it back up.
  • People there go with the flow of things instead of freaking out or demanding a repair or asking weird questions.
  • This police force may not be the big time where things like this wouldn’t be allowed to happen (or persist).

Why does this work as a detail? Because of Will’s Law of Detail:

Weird is normal. Normal is cliché.

Your mom doesn’t work in an office; she works in HR at the mannequin factory. Your dad didn’t go to the store; he went to Big Lots to buy a plastic colander to rinse out a motorcycle’s carburetor.

When you look closely at anything in the real world, you see that everything is weird. Everything is random. And it’s the random that’s realistic, not the planned.

What does a living room have in it? A couch, a loveseat, a couple of chairs, a coffee table, a TV. What does YOURS have in it? The remote for the TV that’s taped up because the battery hatch fell off. A water bottle drowning between two cushions soon to disappear forever. An end table with cat scratches across the top.

If you go with the weird and telling details that strike at a character’s emotions in the moment, you’re closer to the “right” amount of description than you’d be with a simple inventory.

There’s no such thing as typical in your life, and there shouldn’t be in your fiction, either.