It’s All in the Details

17 Jan


As a child, I was always entranced by complexity. Detailed images had the ability to capture my imagination, for hours on end. I can remember staring at the intricate blue patterns offset against the bone white China of my favorite restaurant as my meal grew cold. I would trace the scroll work on a dollar bill, and puzzle over the strange Latin phrases it carried for me. The richness and texture of these designs sunk their hooks deep into my imagination. Something about having a lot of information streaming at my brain was rewarding to me, and having to pick apart the details and see the patterns was like a puzzle in reverse for my young mind.

What I had stumbled upon was the human mind’s predilection for details, minutiae, in short, data. The pleasure I derived from looking at complex images, and decoding them, was really the pleasure of constructing a narrative to the details of the image. Our brains seem naturally wired to first, want large amounts of data and details, and second, to construct some type of narrative framework to organize those details. For the most part, we humans are planners. We prefer more information to less, because planning has long constituted a major element of survival for us. The individuals who were best able to plan, were best able to adapt, and in a harsh environment, adaption is key. Of course, most changes, are unpredictable, and we will get to that point later, but the fact remains that human beings like information, be it visual cues, like in the paintings and designs I loved as a youth, or weather reports and stock prices.

Think about this. When you wake up in the morning, what’s the first thing you do? For most of us, it’s shutting off the alarm, which is often on our phones now. If you already have your phone, in hand, you will probably at least be tempted to check your texts, or facebook, or the weather. If you don’t do it then, you will almost certainly do it when you turn on your laptop in the cold morning light. Even before the digital age, we consumed information, first, even before we consumed food or other necessities. Growing up in the Northeast, I spent many winter mornings bathed in the soft glow of my old, titanic Mitsubishi tube television. It towered over me as I sat there, like a religious supplicant, waiting for its divine judgment. Two hour delay, or wait, wait CLOSED, victory! During those tense minutes watching the list of schools in my area scroll by along the bottom of the talking heads, I never felt hungry, or thirsty, or even tired in the cold dawn on all those winter mornings. I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.

Details were important to me then, not because of the raw information itself, but because of the plan, the narrative, I was able to construct for myself because of them. I could plan out my sledding adventures now, and start calling friends. Our minds want details and information in order to help us build a more certain, predictable world, a world we can make sense out of. A narrative world. For in my adolescent snowday scheming, I was really writing stories of the near future. I envisioned them in my mind, and the divine blessing of the T.V. gave me the information to make them possible.

For details, to a large extent, constitute the fabric, the texture, of our lives. The little anecdotes we tell, the nervous ticks we have, or the tells when we lie, they all seem to combine together to make us who we are. Great writers are able to capture the world, even a fictional world, in all its details, and bring the reader to that world through those details. What makes a series like A Song of Ice and Fire or The Lord of the Rings, so compelling, is the richness and fullness of the worlds they create for us. We have  enough data and details to make predictions about the worlds the characters move through. We can reliably and realistically say “A Gondorian would never do that,” because we have enough enough information, and details about their character, their political affiliation, and past actions to make that predictions. We like surprises in our stories, even unforeseeable ones, but we like, and even need consistent worlds and characters. And that’s the importance of details in fiction. J.R.R. Tolkien was famous for his contention that he felt like he was constructing, or reporting the history of a fictional time and place. This is important, because, it makes the author more accountable. If the Battle of the Last Alliance is seen by the author as a legitimate historical event, then he must control all the details, make it consistent with the rest of the story, and perhaps most of all, not forget that it happened. Events have to have real consequences in these rich and detailed worlds, or else the worlds break down under the weight of their own complexity. This is where we can really appreciate the burden of a fiction writer, in constructing his worlds.

James Joyce was probably the most exacting of all authors when it came to details. He famously asserted that he wished for a reader to be able to reconstruct Dublin, brick by brick from his descriptions in Ulysses. While he lived in France, he frequently wrote back to relatives living in Dublin, demanding the exact time it took to walk between different locations in the city, taking specific routes. The world seems real, because Joyce has put in so much effort to construct it. He uses all the senses, the sights the smells, the tastes of the city. They are filtered of course, through the consciousnesses of the characters, but still, the level of detail, and texture is almost staggering. Joyce was able to do this because he intimately knew the city. He was able to make it come alive, because to him, it was alive.

We only grasp the details when we experience them. Writing well, and more importantly, living well, has a lot to do with being attentive to the details around us. Have you ever met a really bad storyteller? Chances are, the problem with their stories is that they are vague. They went somewhere, they did something, and came back. That’s the typical plot of most stories, and there is nothing wrong with it. The problem is that most people don’t know how to color in their stories. They leave us with a gray unpredictable world, with nothing to follow, no bread crumb trail to lead out of the woods. Think of a T.V. show or novel that has engrossed you. You probably spent, or spend an inordinate amount of time wondering the simple question, “what happens next?” Will they survive? Who will she marry? What will this world inside the story look like at the end. It’s the temptation to read the last page, or the frustration at the guy who drives by and tells everyone waiting in line for Harry Potter that Snape kills Dumbledore. We want to know what happens, but we also want to give ourselves the chance to predict, and that’s why we need details. Without them, the world is bland, and we can’t predict. The story becomes bland, because the author can seemingly do anything, and it would make sense. It takes the fun out of the guesswork, or internet forums where we try to figure out what will happen in the next episode of our favorite drama.

Too often, we’re very adept at paying attention to details in last night’s episode of The Walking Dead, than in our own lives. I don’t mean the kind of detail where you use three different lint rollers on your suit before you leave the house. Or the kind where you color coordinate your Tupperware. I mean the kind of very personal details that make our lives stories worth telling. We increasingly wander through our days in a daze, head down, engrossed in our phones, coffee in hand. This social phenomenon has been derided enough, so I don’t need to beat the dead horse, but our society suffers from a terribly short attention span. It’s evident when you speak with people, most of them can remember few or any of the details you hit them with. They can probably parrot back generalities about where you work or where you went to college, for the most part, we are very unattentive to the characters in our real lives. I know many people who could give me more information about their favorite character in Downton Abbey or Game of Thrones, than they could about many of their friends. To be sure, these are fictional shows, and we are granted entree to every recess of these characters’ lives, something we should not have and probably wouldn’t want, into the lives of real people. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that we’ve become filled with pseudo-emotions. People often seem more invested in fictional families, friends, and lovers, than their own.

Of course, this is understandable. The regular, run of the mill, unexamined life, is boring. T.V. shows, and movies and books are idealized, hyperactive versions of normal life. This is why we escape to them, and why they are fun. I love all of these detailed narratives, but I’m afraid we don’t bring that same attention to detail back with us to the real world. In the end, those worlds are merely a poor reflection of the richness and complexity of our real one. The real world though, requires us to dig a bit deeper though, for those complexities. Life, real life, is the best written of all works. It’s pacing may be a little slow at times, but the wealth, breadth, and depth of experience and description is second to none. Furthermore, it’s not heavy handed in its symbolism or foreshadowing. In most stories, if there is a gun on the mantle in the first scene, it will be used in the last scene. Obviously that doesn’t apply in real life. If you check in to a rugged mountain cottage with a gun on the mantle, the murderer could use a knife, the gun, or there may not even be one at all. Though the details are still there, waiting for those who live an examined life, they don’t determine anything.

Details make up our whole world, but they don’t make our world whole. One of my favorite scenes in all of fiction comes at the end of Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room. Spoilers, the main character dies at the end, and the last scene sees his mother and his best friend going through his room:

He left everything just as it was," Bonamy marvelled. 
" Nothing arranged. All his letters strewn about for any 
one to read. What did he expect ? Did he think he would 
come back ? " he mused, standing in the middle of Jacob's 
Bonamy took up a bill for a hunting-crop. 

*' That seems to be paid," he said. 

There were Sandra's letters. 

Mrs. Durrant was taking a party to Greenwich.

To us, the reader, these objects don’t add up to much. The junk one might find in any room. But to those who were close to Jacob, each item becomes almost a relic of who he once was. Bonamy knows he bought that riding crop, and even though it seems frivolous to think about paying the bill, he knows Jacob well enough to attach some significance to it. Our lives are filled with details. To a large extent, they are just clutter. If someone were to comb through your room tomorrow while you were at work, what would they know about you? Can you know anything about someone through the details they choose to exhibit in their outward lives? The answer, I would think, is an emphatic no. Those details are meaningless, unless someone pays attention to them, and not in the look at me, attention-obsessed “tag me on facebook doing something cool” kind of way. Details are only valuable insofar as we have others in our lives willing to connect them, to stack them up and weigh them, in order to find some approximation of that elusive chimera of who we really are.

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51 Responses to “It’s All in the Details”

  1. erin January 20, 2013 at 2:48 pm #

    This is beautiful. So well written and evocative! This part really spoke to me –

    ‘Our minds want details and information in order to help us build a more certain, predictable world, a world we can make sense out of. A narrative world.’

    I think (and write) about narrative a lot, as part of my PhD research, but also because I’m so entranced by storytelling. The way that we construct narratives of our lives, the way that we use it to remember the past, make sense of the present, and predict the future. The way that people shift through our lives like characters, places like scenery.

    The connection you point out between details, experiences, and understanding is very true; we tell stories because without them, we don’t know our place in this world. We can’t understand others or feel empathy without having a story to relate it to.

    Ulysses is a great example, too. Few writers have been able to create a story like Joyce. I remember feeling drunk the first time I read it – I think it was the chapter ‘Circe’. He had the most brilliant ability to narrate the everyday.

    • jamesroom964x January 20, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

      Great to here from another person entranced by Joyce! The drunken feeling definitely resonates with me. He has a unique ability to make the reader’s head spin, with just the sheer wealth of information. I had a whole class that spent a semester just reading Ulysses. One of the best classes I’ve ever taken, if extremely difficult. I really like your point about people shifting through our lives like characters and places like scenery. Sometimes I find myself wishing I could flip back and “reread,” an experience, to savor it again, but I’m left with its imperfect impression in my memory. Good luck with the PhD! Is it in English?

      • erin January 20, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

        I took a class that just studied Ulysses too :) It was great, but at the time I don’t think I processed it, really. I’ve re-read it a couple of times since then and it’s still sinking in!

        The PhD isn’t actually in English – it’s in Internet Studies. My undergrad & honours is in English but somewhere along the way I fell in love with online culture and sociology. Lots of what I research has to do with English, though – narrative, character construction, epistolary methods. The other part is super-nerdy social network analysis and the like.

  2. philofelinist January 20, 2013 at 3:04 pm #

    I pressed the ‘Freshly Pressed’ button. Congrats! Excellent post as per usual.

    • jamesroom964x January 20, 2013 at 3:18 pm #

      Thanks! I’m very happy and grateful I made it up there again, wouldn’t make it without readers and commenters though!

  3. aaastern January 20, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

    Amazing thoughts and writing! I agree completely about the details and I am always looking for them because it is thought them you find the real “soul”. Tks for sharing. =)

  4. scribblechic January 20, 2013 at 3:34 pm #

    Your final sentence was exquisite, a beginning within an ending. Beautiful post!

    • jamesroom964x January 20, 2013 at 4:05 pm #

      Thanks so much for the positive feedback, it’s a big part of why I write.

  5. moodsnmoments January 20, 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    what a beautiful written piece….i personally go through processing so many details without ever realising the importance…

    ” I needed one thing, and one thing only. Details. I needed data, information, about how my day was going to play out. I needed to know. And I had discovered one of the strongest, and potentially most dangerous of human desires.
    Details were important to me then, not because of the raw information itself, but because of the plan, the narrative, I was able to construct for myself because of them. I could plan out my sledding adventures now, and start calling friends. ”

    this is one bit where i keep getting entwined into….day after day…the more data i have, the more i seem to need…

    a writing which seems very honest…congratulations on being fp….

    • jamesroom964x January 20, 2013 at 5:38 pm #

      Thanks! Yes, I think the key to effective writing really is honesty. It seems like a cliche at this point, “write what you know,” but it has worked out for me. I can almost feel if I’ve written something with that searing honesty, and I think other people, the readers, can sense it as well.

  6. surfskiesp January 20, 2013 at 7:21 pm #

    Yes, great post right there! I am following you now, if you would like to hear some about Ocean Paddling then follow us back. Cheers!

  7. jasonoruairc January 21, 2013 at 11:26 am #

    Enjoyed this, some insightful observations. I write short notes about everyday life in Belfast, and often omit what you may consider to be essential details; perhaps an in-depth description of a character or place. The reason for doing this is to allow the reader freedom to imagine, to ‘fill in the blanks’, and therefore achieve some kind of universal appeal (i.e. beyond Belfast). This doesn’t mean that I don’t pay attention to detail though: certain objects and characters do get described in scrupulous detail. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it:

    • jamesroom964x January 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      I actually very much enjoyed the most recent post you have on there. I especially liked the image of the rotting and fraying, that’s powerful stuff. I do think you strike quite a nice balance between detail, and letting the reader fill in the blanks as you say. The snapshot seems very much situated in Belfast, with the history of the place present throughout. At the same time, I think you’re vague enough that a reader can project himself into that time and place without too much trouble. I’ll be sure to check back again soon.

      • jasonoruairc January 21, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

        Thanks for the feedback James, I’m glad to get your opinion of this in the light of your latest post. Cheers, J

  8. srinivas23051989 January 21, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Fearfully honest. Great work!!

  9. Funny Southern Style January 21, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Great thoughts!

  10. Ali January 22, 2013 at 2:08 am #

    Hi there – this post was absolutely refreshing. You left a comment on my blog about the personal aspect of blogging (thanks for that, by the way) and this was no exception. The examples you used from both your own life and the things you’ve read or see day to day made this idea so rich for me. It’s true! Details are so important and totally are the root of how we communicate what is valuable to us. They allow us to relate to each other and keep us aware of the world around us. I love the image of clutter to help illustrate details. Great post, man. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed and I continue to look forward to reading more of what you write.


  11. Fiona McQuarrie January 22, 2013 at 6:16 am #

    Being a detail-oriented person myself, your comment that “details make up our whole world, but they don’t make the world whole” really resonated. Thanks for this incredibly thoughtful discussion!

  12. ottomandandy January 22, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    Keep up the good work. really inspiring

  13. ottomandandy January 22, 2013 at 8:30 am #

    also you can talk more about the secret history.

  14. Toner Laser January 22, 2013 at 10:02 am #

    Thanks so much! I’ve been looking for something like this, and this is fantastic.

  15. marcyatoigue January 22, 2013 at 5:58 pm #

    Wonderful insights . I have been realizing that living a stressful life prevents me from being conscious of the details of my life. I have been reminding myself that by giving myself space to notice details, I can increase my enjoyment of life. Thank you for more details to think about. Also, I’ve never read James Joyce. He’s on my list.

  16. Ramin Tork January 22, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Reblogged this on doodlejuice.

  17. agusmasri January 23, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    Reblogged this on Agus MASRIANTO's Blog.

  18. kdillmanjones January 23, 2013 at 7:13 pm #

    Thank you for inspiring me to go back and reread Joyce!

  19. searchingtosee January 23, 2013 at 10:24 pm #

    “Writing well, and more importantly, living well, has a lot to do with being attentive to the details around us.” so true. Detail is everything. A really well written and informative post. Glad I decided to check out FP today!

  20. knowleselle January 24, 2013 at 1:17 pm #

    Very well written and thought provoking. When I read, I want details, and so as I begin to write, I tend to give details. My imagination sometimes runs wild, leaving no room for the reader to wonder. However, I have a story to tell and it is all in my head straining to make it to the written page! After reading your article, I can see where this is not a bad thing. Thank you for the wonderful post.

  21. Andrew J. Stillman January 24, 2013 at 7:11 pm #

    Wow. That was amazing. It’s all so very true, and you used the exact examples I do when I talk about character personality traits vs the friends I know as well. I envision the characters as my friends and almost expect my friends to be like them because I find my life dull and boring, but you’re right. Taking a moment to step back and look at the details of and in your own life would be actually very refreshing. Thank you for this post.

  22. Lyn January 24, 2013 at 8:27 pm #

    Detail is what makes up the rich tapestry of life. From the intricate individuality of a snowflake, to why Timmy lines up his crayons a particular way.

    One of the most annoying things a person can say to me is, “Don’t bother about the details; just give me the abridged version.” What fun is there in that? Even the most insignificant detail can give you insight into what makes a person tick.

    I have a friend, who always eats her greens and carrots first, then her meat and gravy, but leaves her crispy-edged baked potatoes until last. She cuts each one into bite-sized pieces before savouring every morsel. Why does she do this? Forty years ago, before she had her gall bladder removed, she was unable to tolerate even the slightest amount of fat. Two days after surgery, she was given a roast potato with her dinner. It had been five years since she’d had one, and wanted to make it last as long as she could. She still does it to this day.

    Give me the “whys and the wherefores” every time. Life can be pretty boring without them.

  23. sofiebergh January 24, 2013 at 8:57 pm #

    This was a beautiful post. I will go to sleep with a lot of thoughts going through my head… Thank you for the inspiration!

  24. stefanicrystal January 25, 2013 at 7:45 am #

    Details are what makes every day life rich, full, interesting, curious – I too have always been obsessed with the intricate, the finer points.
    When I was taking creative writing workshops at uni, it baffled me when someone said to me that they hated to use descriptive detail in their fiction. For me, what makes writing my joy and passion is the challenge of transporting someone to an entirely different time, place, situation – just through reading my words. I would put a book down if it failed to do this for me.
    Reading your post has been a great start to my day – thanks!

  25. Madhu January 25, 2013 at 8:35 am #

    I think we are all impressed by the details as children, but lose the ability to ‘see’ along the way to adulthood. Brilliant post James, and perfect summation. Congratulations on the well deserved recognition :-)

  26. usolee January 25, 2013 at 9:50 am #

    Details. They make up our whole world but they don’t make our world whole. That’s lyrical gold my friend.

    Honestly, it wasn’t my intention to read your entire article. I too, felt the pull of doing something else and attending to other details waiting for me in other Safari tabs. But your content was so… (for lack of a more appropriate word) real, I just had to read it all. And strangely, considering this posts length I feel as if I just whizzed right through it. This warp in my perception of time is testament to your engaging and thought-provoking ideas. Thanks! You shook up my opinions and the dust is still settling… I can’t even write a comprehensive comment right now! lol

    Oh! That’s right. I wanted to relate to details in the art world. I used to be turned off by abstract paintings, that is until I started to consider the details. I’m talking about the countless details in not only the creation process, but the viewing process as well. Seemingly simple elements suddenly burst with artistic value. Don’t you agree? It’s like that example you cite about the bill. An excessive, unnecessary detail? An eloquently designed window into the deeper story?

    Details are fascinating :)

    • jamesroom964x January 25, 2013 at 9:58 am #

      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. It’s true, the length of my posts is definitely a turn off to some, but I’m glad you persevered and got through the whole monster! And I think for an artist, especially a writer, one of the biggest, but most rewarding challenges, is to divide the important details from the fluff. Sometimes it’s very hard to tell the difference.

  27. teeceecounsel January 25, 2013 at 1:19 pm #

    It really is in the details!
    Details could sometimes be the difference between excellence and mediocrity.
    Brevity and precision also have their own roles
    You use details in a good way. :)

  28. OyiaBrown January 25, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  29. Caron Eastgate Dann January 25, 2013 at 10:20 pm #

    What a thought-provoking post—your points could be applied to any aspect of life or society, including media. I’m a former journalist (well, “former” at the moment), and much of what I think is wrong with news and current affairs reporting now is that there is no attention to detail. Instead of more details, we get adjectives, platitudes and a “near enough is good enough” attitude. For example, there was a short piece on Australian TV recently about royal barges in Thailand. I know this is most probably on the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok—because I used to live in Thailand—but nowhere in the story did it give the location other than “Thailand”. Another example is the use of terms such as “several years ago” and “recently”, which are evidence to me of laziness in not finding out the details.

  30. ettis January 26, 2013 at 5:07 am #

    All our missives are bits spinning on a nether platter in the confines of a dark space, or a lighted one, inside whirring racks identical to the next. When we go, the information dissolves into its constituent pieces, files losing coherence against time: no yellowed letters for our children to inherit, to rubberband and toss in the attic. Even if our curators preserve the choicest parts – suppose they do – that preservation will for our progeny be the classics which happened to be kept, to describe lives in electronic detail.

  31. hiberniangypsy January 28, 2013 at 11:11 am #

    I studied James Joyce at UCD, the same university where the great man himself studied. He is a fascinating writer, and his eye for detail is second to none. I am also an expat, now living in Amsterdam. Check out my photos and stories on

  32. writersideup March 10, 2013 at 7:05 am #

    James, this was beautifully written and expressed. Thank you :)

    • ksunflowers May 10, 2013 at 1:52 am #

      James, what a pleasure to read . . . so nice to be reminded that life is not just about condensing and compressing who we are into consise “tweets”. In my opinion, it is always about, and in, the details . . . the details are what nurtures our souls. Continue to shine your light. Congrats on your much desired recognition.

      • ksunflowers May 10, 2013 at 1:57 am #

        James, please forgive my mis-spell of “desired” recognition. I truly meant deserved recognition. My apologies.

  33. Clare Froggatt April 4, 2013 at 9:38 am #

    I was hooked from the first sentence! What a lovely way you have with words.


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