Think of a story you found really exciting: Moby Dick? Breaking Bad? Cinderella?
Now think of a story you found really boring: The Bold and The Beautiful? Scream, part fifty-eight? A documentary about the sleeping habits of the common edible snail?
And now tell me: What’s the big difference between the stories you loved and the stories you hated?
Not so much, I bet. Summarize one of your great and one of your awful stories in just three sentences each. Now the exciting one doesn’t sound so exciting anymore, and the boring one doesn’t sound so boring, true? By only talking about their plots, they have leveled out.
So what’s the difference then, dammit!? Will you tell us already, Alex??
Yes, and here it is. The difference, as I’m sure you already guessed from that traitorous title, is in the details. The details of plot, of character, of scenery, of dialogue. It’s the small twists and turns of a story that let it sparkle and shine in your memory for many years to come.
In other words, what excites you is not the plain plot, but rather how this plot is presented to you. The nuances of characters that draw us towards them magnetically. The little lines of dialogue that crack us up or make us shed a tear. You derive all the joy from the details.
And this post will be one big anthem in honor of the details. It will explore the many ways you can use them to make your story oh so colorful, and it will answer questions like: What are the best ways to bring some detail into your story? Is it possible to add too many details? How exactly does Quentin Tarantino do it?
Yes, to demonstrate to you the power of details, we are taking a look at the work of a true master of little oddities and punchlines, a man who constantly keeps his audiences’ expectations hovering, a man who probably eats out of burger-shaped bowls and rides to work on a unicorn: My absolute favorite director, Mr. Quentin f****ng Tarantino (excuse the stars).
In fact, Tarantino is the only director whose movies get me hyped up every single time, and the only one whose movie releases I will always mark in my calendar (figuratively speaking). So I’m really excited to write about him. “Pulp Fiction” is such a fun, smart, engaging movie, and it shows Tarantino at his best – the perfect example to demonstrate the addictive power of details.
You can also find 4 more suggestions to introduce details in your dailogue totally naturally in the following free download. Each of these suggestions includes one more example from “Pulp Fiction.”
Now let’s see how to make the best use of details to get your readers excited.
THE BASIC IDEA
When Should I Add Details?
Thanks for asking. The short answer is: Always! Dig your full hands into them, grab as many as you can, and stuff them into your story like you were filling up a Thanksgiving turkey, you greedy, greedy writer you!
Which leads us to the second question:
Can It Ever Be Too Many Details?
Short answer: Yes, but you will probably not have this problem. For most writers, especially beginning writers, it’s a very theoretical problem to have.
It’s like asking: Can I have too much money?
Yes, absolutely, and with a lot of money a whole different set of problems will come into your life (properties that need constant maintenance, dealing with jealousy, attracting the attention of scammers and thieves, running out of rubber bands to hold your bills, etc…). But still, that’s a theoretical question, because most of us have the opposite problem. Just like most of us pay too little attention to detail in their stories.
Nevertheless, to be totally clear and before Tarantino showers you in his tickling details, here are two signs you are using too many details in your scene:
1. Your Details are Distracting
Read your scene. If you lose what your scene is about for a moment, because you are so focused on the details, that’s not a good thing. It means your details cover up your story and distract your reader. The relation of details to main thread has gotten out of hand. Time to cut back on the details.
2. Your Details are Boring
It could be that your details just can’t hold the readers’ attention. The common term we use for this is “boring” or “yawnable.” If you read through your story and you get the nagging feeling of “When do we finally get back to the point?”, then it’s too many or just too uninteresting details.
The more time you spend writing your stories, the better your feeling for details and how many to include will become. I bet you are an avid reader and/or writer. Trust your sense for detail. At some point, you will know.
THE MASTER’S WAY TO DO IT
After telling you at length, what not to do, it’s time to lay out a plan for what to actually do.
You can include details on several levels of your story. Let’s start with the broadest scale and work ourselves down to the most specific scale.
1. Add an Entire Scene
The biggest element you can add to your story would be an entire scene, a “detail” of plot, so to speak.
Now why on earth should you do this? Doesn’t everybody and their mother tell you to tighten your plotline like flabby cheeks during a beauty OP?
It is indeed a tricky thing to do, and in case of doubt better keep away from this delicate surgical operation on your story. But if you know what you are doing, it will make for a nice little additional ornament.
Your extra scene works for you in two ways: It entertains in itself, often with its very own (unimportant) mini-story inside a story. Plus it delays the overall plot and therefore gets your audience even more eager to know what will happen.
Just make sure to keep your extra scene short enough so it doesn’t become too distracting. Also justify your scene. The fact that your storyline is following your protagonist is oftentimes justification enough. But making too big of a jump in space, time, or between characters could look very much out of place and make your audience scratch their heads.
And how does Tarantino do it?
Look at the scene of Butch and his girlfriend Fabienne in the motel room (it’s actually three back-to-back scenes that feel like a single one). Butch is a boxer who was bribed to lose a fight. Instead of losing, he killed his opponent and is now on the run.
The entire scene, except for its ending, is completely unnecessary for the plot, and it’s a long scene too (15 pages). But it adds oh so much spice to the screenplay.
I will leave it up to you to discuss whether this scene is too long or not. But look at what it does with the audience here:
We, the viewers, are on the edges of our seats to know how that cat-and-mouse game between Butch and the gangsters he scammed will play out. But Tarantino doesn’t just tell us and kill all the tension. Instead, he brings in an interruption. He demonstrates at length the lovey-dovey relationship between Butch and Fabienne. He shows us the sweet talk. The teasing. The cutesy ideas. Their trust. How they deal with looming danger. Fabienne’s fragile and loving character. Their future projections and fantasies.
And finally, when we are knee-deep into their cotton-candy version of a relationship, Tarantino hits us hard with the shocker: Fabienne has forgotten to take Butch’s precious watch with her, so Butch has to return to their apartment, where the gangsters might be waiting for him. Emotionally, it feels like stepping out of a warm bubble bath into the icy desserts of Siberia…
So while we are following the relationship of the couple and get served entertaining bits and tidbits, we always feel danger lurking in the background. These two elements keep the scene exciting, even though it doesn’t advance the plot at all.
Praised be Tarantino!
2. Add Details of Scenery
Moving right along to the next smaller unit, let’s take a look how we can make things interesting within a single scene. There are many original ways to take advantage of a setting.
You can either put the entire setting into an unusual environment: Think of two locations that usually don’t go together and connect them in a way that still makes sense.
A real estate office at a castle? That’s because the realtor is a count.
A library on a boat? It’s actually an art experiment. Don’t drown in the alphabet soup.
Just cross two locations and run with the hybrid.
You could also take a common setting and spice it up with uncommon details. Tarantino demonstrates this in the restaurant scene between Vince and Mia. Whereas many screenwriters would just have this scene play out in a plain restaurant not more distinctive than the pub at your street corner, Tarantino goes totally over the top with it (which was to be expected…):
INT. JACKRABBIT SLIM’S – NIGHT
Compared to the interior, the exterior was that of a quaint English pub. Posters from 50’s A.I.P. movies are all over the wall […]. The booths that the patrons sit in are made out of the cut up bodies of 50’s cars.
In the middle of the restaurant is a dance floor. A big sign on the wall states, “No shoes allowed.” Some wannabe beboppers (actually Melrose-types), do the twist in their socks or barefeet.
The picture windows don’t look out the street, but instead, B & W movies of 50’s street scenes play behind them. The WAITRESSES and WAITERS are made up as replicas of 50’s icons: MARILYN MONROE, ZORRO, JAMES DEAN, DONNA REED, MARTIN and LEWIS, and THE PHILIP MORRIS MIDGET, wait on tables wearing appropriate costumes.
Vincent and Mia study the menu in a booth made out of a red ’59 Edsel. BUDDY HOLLY (their waiter), comes over, sporting a big button on his chest that says: “Hi I’m Buddy, pleasing you pleases me.”
Cut-up cars for booths? Dancefloor without shoes? Buddy Holly as waiter?
What a plethora of details! The scene gets interesting before even a single line of dialogue is uttered. This is how you let your creativity off the chain and add another layer to your story.
But you have many more opportunities to add detail. Let’s see what happens when you…
3. Add Details to Characters
We are zooming in on characters now. The more details you add to a figure, the more vividly she will appear in front of your reader’s mental cyclops-eye. Here are some effective ways to refine your characters:
A. Add a Character Trait
Add more details to your characters’ personalities, and they will intrigue your readers better. It’s just like in real life. If Herbert is your close co-worker and Answan works in another department, chances are you will care more about Herbert.
Tarantino lends an unexpected trait to his cold-blooded killer Vincent (John Travolta). Vincent tends to take things personally and is easily offended. You can see it towards the end of the screenplay, when he complains to Mr. Wolf, who is just saving their asses, that “A ‘please’ would be nice.” Who would have known this hard-boiled hitman can behave like a spoiled princess?
Vincent’s princess behavior also shows shortly after, when he and Jules have to clean the blood trenched car. Vince just shot a guy in that car on accident, so the mess is his fault. Nevertheless, he is easily ticked off by Jules’ comments:
I got a threshold, Jules. I got a
threshold for the abuse I’ll take.
And you’re crossin’ it. I’m a race
car and you got me in the red. Redline
7000, that’s where you are. Just
know, it’s fuckin’ dangerous to be
drivin’ a race car when it’s in the
red. It could blow.
Vincent, one of the main characters, has just gained an interesting facet. But the savvy screenwriter is able to add a quick brushstroke even to minor characters.
Taxi driver Esmerelda only appears in one single scene; she picks up Butch when he makes a getaway from his boxing fight.
Silence, as Butch digs in his bag for a t-shirt.
What does it feel like?
(finds his shirt)
What does what feel like?
Killing a man. Beating another man
to death with your bare hands.
Esmarelda gets excited by danger and death. Just this one piece of information alone makes her a lot more interesting to us and fits to the theme perfectly. You can add to your figures’ value massively by just adding a small detail.
B. Add a Quirk
If you add a plain habit or mannerism, your characters gain depth. This is really simple to do.
Want another Tarantino example?
How about Vince once again, in the same restaurant scene we described above. During dinner, he is pointing at the waiters with his fork. Bad manners! We smirk about him, but the director/screenwriter just amplified his personality in our minds. Devious, devious director…
C. Add a Detail in Looks
What is the first thing you notice about a person? It’s their looks. Looks are a quick and subtle way to show who your characters are. In fact, actors can’t help it but to look somehow. Everybody has looks (and let’s hope they have good ones).
For screenplays, describing your character’s looks is extremely effective. But even in novels, description can make your readers visualize vividly. Once you paint that image in your readers’ head, it will pop up again and again like a jack-in-the-box, every time the character reappears.
You can describe your characters’ height, body type, hair fashion, tattoos, etc… You can also describe their attire: Trench coat? Suit? Ruffled skirt? Sport shoes? Stained t-shirt? Hat? High heels? Elbow patches? Goofy glasses? Take your pick.
When Butch first appears, it says he “sits at a table wearing a red and blue high school athletic jacket.” That’s very fitting for a professional boxer and a simpler, sporty guy. Or could you imagine him in a long, elegant leather coat?
No, that would be as fitting as a squirrel at a chess club.
D. Add a Prop for a Detail
Another interesting way to add a layer to your characters are props. Put a pipe in his mouth, or one of these burger-filling-size dogs into her lap, let her drive a pink car or grow weed in shoeboxes on the window sill. All of these items are statements about your character.
At the very end of “Pulp Fiction,” we learn that the words “Bad Motherfucker” are imprinted on Jules’ wallet. That should tell you something; precisely that he doesn’t give a f…avor. An entire character, clearly and spectacularly described by a simple prop.
4. Add Details to Your Dialogue
Now it gets super interesting. If we worked with messenger horses so far, we are now delivering our messages with container ships. By adding details to your dialogue, you can improve it, and even your overall scene by 1000%. And it’s soooo much fun to add this micro-layer to the words your character speaks. You can get really creative with it; I will show you exactly how.
This is the one big principle you have to bear in mind: Don’t let your character directly reply to the other speaker, but instead let her take a little detour.
What the heck does that mean?
If Floyd says “Let’s go to eat at McDonald’s!” (which you should never, ever do by the way), and Sandra replies “Let’s do it, I’m hungry,” or “No way, I just ate there yesterday,” then she has replied directly (bad!).
But what if Sandra replies “You are so boring, you always go to the same mangers!” (snide remark) or “Ha ha, you won’t believe what happened to Angelina at McDonald’s last week!” (introduction to storytelling) or “Why do you like McDonald’s so much?” (curiosity/personal inquiry), then she doesn’t answer Floyd’s enthusiastic call directly. Instead, she is taking a little detour, adding detail to her dialogue. And that’s where things get interesting.
What’s really exciting is that you have a million possible ways to insert little detours into your dialogue. At any given moment, a million possible things could come to your character’s mind. Play around with them!
We can’t ever make a complete list of how to add detail in dialogue, but here are three examples of how Tarantino does it. If this isn’t enough for you, you can download four more below.
Let’s go back to that restaurant scene, because we love it, and we want more of it.
On one occasion, Vincent wants to taste Mia’s drink. But instead of him just taking a sip, a little flirt around the use of her straw ensues. Watch how this detour unfolds in all its glory:
Can I have a sip of that? I’d like
to know what a five-dollar shake
Be my guest.
She slides the shake over to him.
You can use my straw, I don’t have
Yeah, but maybe I do.
Kooties I can handle.
He takes a sip.
These lines have a lot of subtext (can you read it?) and represent the little back-and-forward dance that is flirting. Vincent could have just asked and tasted it. But instead Tarantino uses another entertaining detail in his dialogue.
Sometimes the difference between a misunderstanding and a tease is a fine line. You wonder whether your opposite really doesn’t understand, or just prefers not to understand… (you might actually know this from arguments with your mom or child).
Vincent and Jules have a love/hate relationship. They constantly get in each other’s hair. It also happens in the following scene, when Vince asks a question. Jules first replies to Vincent’s question with a question on his own, then Vincent replies with an answer he wasn’t asked about, and Jules again teases him about his answer:
I think her biggest deal was she
starred in a pilot.
What’s a pilot?
Well, you know the shows on TV?
I don’t watch TV.
Yes, but you’re aware that there’s
an invention called television, and
on that invention they show shows?
Finally! Vincent gives a direct answer. When you read the entire scene, his short, precise reply almost comes as a relief, after the dialogue has built up much tension. Jules in turn answers Vincent’s original question and finally explains what a pilot is. Well, he could have explained that much earlier. But better not; better enjoy a spicy scene.
Now back to that famous restaurant scene one last time, because it also holds an excellent example of storytelling for us. Storytelling means one of your characters is telling an interesting little mini-plot, a story within the story to hook the audience, while they wait for your main scene to continue.
You can hook your audience easily if your mini-story explores the personality of the character who is telling it. Everybody wants to hear stories about people.
Mia tells Vincent about the TV pilot she starred in:
What was your specialty?
Knives. The character I played, Raven
McCoy, her background was she was
raised by circus performers. So she
grew up doing a knife act. According
to the show, she was the deadliest
woman in the world with a knife. But
because she grew up in a circus, she
was also something of an acrobat.
She could do illusions, she was a
trapeze artist – when you’re keeping
the world safe from evil, you never
know when being a trapeze artist’s
gonna come in handy. And she knew a
zillion old jokes her grandfather,
an old vaudevillian, taught her. If
we woulda got picked up, they woulda
worked in a gimmick where every
episode I woulda told and old joke.
Do you remember any of the jokes?
Well I only got the chance to say
one, ’cause we only did one show.
No. It’s really corny.
And now we want to know about the joke, even though it has nothing to do with the main plot. Another sweet detour. We won’t get to hear it until the end of the chapter though. What a tease Tarantino is.
In the screenplay, Mia’s entire story is quite long. For your purposes, better err on the shorter side. And what does this story reveal about charming Mia, can you guess?
Even though her TV show character is fictional, the role she got assigned tells us a lot about the type of girl she is: Adventurous, self-determined, capable, and a bit mysterious. She describes herself in a very indirect and gripping way, and we are hooked.
Now there are a million more ways to add details to your dialogue, but this post is getting really long. I can’t include more here, but I created a little extra cheat sheet for you with 4 more ways to add details to your dialogue and one “Pulp Fiction” example each. You can instantly download it for free here:
THE WRITING PROMPT
Try this prompt and make adding details your second nature.
Gordon is a jolly hairdresser running his barbershop. The shop and him are one big blank though. This is where you come in to let your creativity run wild and add all the fun details. Give his shop an unusual setting, and fill that setting with details, just like in the restaurant scene above.
Some suggestions to inspire you: What’s unusual about his barbershop? Where is it located? What does it look like? What are the employees like? The customers? What does everyday life look like?
Then take Ralph to task. Supply him with another character trait besides being jolly. Describe his looks. Give him a quirk and one special prop, if you like. He will say a heartfelt ‘Thank You’ for making him a real human being. Show him cutting the hair of one of his customers, who is telling him about her last vacation. Write a short dialogue (just 3-4 replies each) and include a little detour (misunderstanding, feeling offended, small story, whatever…).
No need to write an entire scene, just jot down these fragments. Oh, and watch “Pulp Fiction”! It might motivate you to insert many more creative details into your stories…
WRAPPING IT UP FOR YOU TO GO
Details are amazing. Details are the best. They will make your story sound 1000% better. Introduce them anywhere you can: Insert an interesting new scene to delay your plot. Add details to your settings. Lend your characters additional traits. Give them a prop, some detail in their appearance, maybe a quirk for good measure. Let your dialogue not run in a straight line, but take detours with counter-questions, absent-mindedness, misinterpretations, or whatever else you can think of.
Adding details is so much fun! Once you know where your story is going, you can concentrate on the nuances and let your quirky, imaginative self run wild with details. And reading details in stories is so much fun too. They are what really excites your reader, and if you present a detailed and sparkling world to him, he will be intrigued to no end, devour your story like candy and love you forever…
Image Credits: Header Image: Chris Cooper, Instagram: ctcoops555; Devil: MaryValery/Shutterstock; Romance: Ganna Demchenko/Shutterstock; PF Movie Poster: Old Red Jalopy, oldredjalopy.com; Mia on Burger Poster: James Stayte, stayteoftheart.co.uk; Quentin Tarantino: Eric Rolon, youtube.com/user/angelegend