Writing 2017-12-23

Book Notes – How Fiction Works, Ch. 4

How Fiction Works is a book written by critic James Wood and is an examination of the techniques that fiction utilizes to immerse the reader and create an experience. This is the third of a series of write-ups of notes that I have taken while reading the book.

Chapter 4: Detail

Wood mentions the obvious, which is that the use of detail draws readers in, but then continues on to note that literature show readers how to notice details and that the skill of noticing is then practiced in real life. That is, literature can be a primer text for real world issues.

Wood asserts that details work when they draw attention to themselves in a momentary way. That is, the detail doesn’t just show up repeatedly for no reason. The reader should take note of it and then move on. The detail should also have some visceral connection to it; it should be described using materials, names, numbers, but never described in vague terms.

Often details are not meaningful in any way. They are there to add detail to a moment in the story. In other cases, the detail could appear completely meaningless, but really have relevance in some non-obvious way (they are “significantly insignificant”). Often details of both types mentioned can be used to help present the reader with a passage of time. It is important, however, to be strategic with details in general. Excessive detail can be a distraction. Be prepared to identify relevant and irrelevant detail.

Details don’t always have to be justified. They can be a mystery. A detail can be applied to a character or event with no explanation. This can make the reader want to know more.


I think the chapter on detail really covers ground that appears on most treatises on writing. The information isn’t particularly new, but it is useful in the context of the book as a sort of set-up for future chapters.

About the author

Erik Hentell: I started out in theater before moving to graphic design. I eventually moved into web design while trying to expand my knowledge on software development. I currently work for a media company helping with their digital assets such as source code archives and ebooks.