James D. McCallister

author of the Edgewater County series

The Telling Detail

As I suspect many authors also experience, since my career’s started gaining some traction I get asked more often by aspiring writers for advice—to read pages, usually, or simply to give them some sort of insight or ‘secret’ to getting published. I can’t do that, though, mainly because there isn’t one surefire route to publication, only a stepping-stone process that begins with the foundation of strong writing, good storytelling instincts, a voice that’s entertaining and consistent, and perhaps as important as any one other aspect, a keen eye for detail. For all detail, yes, but also a level of discernment in determining which of the myriad details we all observe every day are most useful to us in a literary sense, and a recent encounter with a neophyte scribe underscored this notion for me.

The other day a friend I’ve known from around the neighborhood for many years came to me and said, “Okay, I’m working on something, and wondered . . .”

“Insert drumroll,” I said, smiling.

“. . . if you’d read it.”


We chatted on the sidewalk, me getting the rundown on his project and aspirations and whatnot. I offered to take a look at a page or two, but only if he could handle an honest opinion.

Hesitant, he said he thought that he . . . could handle that. He stroked his chin. “What’s really hanging me up in getting going,” he explained, “is in how to describe things.”

I asked, ‘how’ to describe things, or perhaps more useful and specific, how MUCH to describe things.

He snapped his fingers. “Yeah, yeah—how much.”

I looked at my friend. He had on sneakers, a pair of jeans, a windbreaker, and a red, large-billed ball cap propped on the back of his head—come to think of it, that cap, and others like it, were my friend’s ‘telling detail’: for a gregarious man-about-town who knows everyone, is well liked and bright and happy, my friend’s ever-present hat propped up high and proud said it all about his open and fun personality.

I explained my observation of him, about the details, and the hat. “Any schmoe can walk around in sneakers and a windbreaker, but it takes a You to wear that hat the way you do. That’s the telling detail I’d pick out in describing you.”

And that’s a way of thinking in general, I went on to say, about how to describe characters, places, and objects—a full block of text describing every little tidbit will put readers to sleep, but sussing out the detail through which we may be illuminated to a deeper meaning is the key to writing that’s descriptive without feeling dense and overwritten with unnecessary detail.

Furthermore, I added, a function of learning to trust the reader is that this is a collaborative process, and that readers don’t need every stinkin’ little detail about how this or that looks. You give them the seed-pod of a telling detail, and their imaginations will fill in the rest, especially when it comes to common objects like cars or buildings or how people dress. “An ordinary pair of sneakers doesn’t mean anything, but the condition of the sneakers might. An ordinary ball cap on someone’s head might tell us what ball team they like or that they want to keep the sun off their nose, but in your case the detail of HOW the hat’s worn makes it illuminating in a manner far beyond mere factual description.”

As my friend walked away with a small glowing lightbulb over the top of his jaunty, red ball cap, I knew I’d sent him on his way to becoming if not a better writer, then a more keen and discerning observer of the world he wants to describe in prose. I haven’t seen those pages of his yet, but here’s hoping he’s somewhere working on them right now, and finding those telling details that in their meaning and efficacy paint a bigger overall reading picture.


About dmac

James D. McCallister is a South Carolina author of novels, short stories, and creative nonfiction. His latest book, a story collection called The Year They Canceled Christmas, releases in November 2017.

Leave a Reply