Writing Small: The Devil Is in the Details, by Clay Sanger

Clay Sanger has been writing fantasy on the darker side for some time now. I’ve had the pleasure of publishing a couple of his short stories in my anthologies, including the upcoming Knaves. His long-awaited debut novel, Endsville, is now available from Crossroad Press. It's a dark fantasy novel featuring occult gangsters operating out of Los Angeles who, in order to recover a huge amount of money stolen by a hostile sorcerer, go through an adventure rife with betrayal, violence, and black magic. Be sure to check it out!

Clay joins us today to talk about how the devil is in the details of a story, and how to hone in on those small details to make the book have a big impact. —Melanie


Cut the stuff readers tend to skim. Keep everything else. Sounds simple, right? But deciding what the key details are in any story versus all the other the stuff that tumbled out of your brain and onto the keyboard isn't a simple magic trick. In fact, it's downright painful, and more than a little slippery.

Which details truly matter? The answers to questions like that always sound so simple at face value. It's the details that make the reader engage with the story. The ones that make the reader feel and connect.

So which ones are those? Well, there are the explosive, awesome moments in any story that stick with us. But no matter how big the story, there are only so many of those. So what keeps the reader reading? Invariably, it's the small things. And writing small is the real magic trick.  

You can hit me with 3 pages of narrative describing, in wide-angle shots, the apocalypse visited upon your fictional city, and I might hang with you for a paragraph or two. But my eyes will soon glaze over, and I'll have to fight the urge to skim. But give me a one-liner about a little girl's half-burnt red shoe laying on the side of the road as your lost city blazes in a storm cloud of ash and brimstone in the background, and I'll likely remember that little red shoe forever. That half-burnt, discarded shoe will tell me more about what's happening in your world in one or two sentences than paragraphs of wide-angle shots of crumbling buildings and falling skies ever will.

It's the small that gives readers the emotional connection to the story. It's the bite-sized details that are properly scaled for us to wrap our brains around that stick with us and make us feel. For most of us, we don't feel the big. We feel the small. The burnt red shoe. The hastily spray-painted words Here There Be Dragons scrawled across the side of an abandoned car. The dog-eared paperback book the lost old man is clutching in his hand as if it were his last possession while the world burns behind him. 

Not to say a grand sweep of the narrative camera can't raise the hair on the reader's arms if used sparingly and timed well – because, oh boy, it sure can – but paragraph to paragraph, page to page, what resonates with most readers, what gives them the feel of the moment, is the small.

Step one of the magic trick is write the small. Step two is knowing when to repeat it and when to quit. 

Ten small details heaped on top of one another are not ten times better than one small diamond. In fact, it's probably the inverse. It's likely to be about one-tenth as effective. You might certainly write those ten little smalls into the draft. But when you're going back through and making your editing passes, you need to decide which one or two to keep. Then kill the others along with the rest of the darlings. Writing small is incredibly powerful, but it's quickly diluted by misuse.  There are endless details you can write into your story. But which ones stick? Which ones really ring and chime? Do those. Skip the rest.  

Fantasy and science fiction are especially rife with avalanches of smalls. For me as a reader, that's usually not for the better. If obsessing over every button on every vest and every platter at every feast is what draws you in, so be it. But my entire face goes numb and I start skimming until one of those buttons or one of those platters becomes meaningful in some way. There's a real disconnect between quantity of detail and quality of detail. Quality detail is meaningful. Engaging. For me, anything less probably belongs on the cutting room floor.

One of the most useful questions I ask my beta readers is "Please tell me whenever you start to feel the urge to skim." Why? Because they're a better judge of that than the keyboard monkey who wrote it (me). I pay special attention to any points in the story that made my readers feel impatient about moving ahead. Then, with any luck, I go fix them.

So why do readers start to skim? Let's discard the more common causes like clunky, poorly written narrative. That's its own problem, and it's not really relevant to the matter at hand. Artfully written prose can induce the urge to skim just like trash on the page can.

Readers feel that urge to skim because they've become disconnected from the story. Essentially, they're bored. Their mind is starting to wander because it's been too long since the author gave them some kind of hook.  Generally speaking, those hooks are tied to emotion – some strategically placed detail that caused the reader to feel something meaningful. Something that caused a spark in their brain or struck an emotional chord of some kind. When done successfully, those hooks tend to be small and well-paced. Frequent without being piled on top of each other.

You can lay down an awful lot of words without resetting the hook if you're not careful. A knack for writing small helps you avoid that. What is the little thing that made the reader feel? Focus on that and turn a scrutinizing eye to the rest. Can't find one in the last few paragraphs? If it's not there, then it's as critically absent as the wheels missing from a car.  

Holding a reader's interest is an exercise in writing small, doing it well, and doing it repeatedly. Their engagement in your story is a like passing a helium balloon down a line of people from hand to hand. It will float away if someone in the chain loses their grip. 

Your story only has a handful of big things to drop on the reader, no matter its length or complexity. Crowning moments of awesome can't carry a story all by themselves. The big things might have been great. But if the author neglected to write small along the way, they probably failed to keep the reader engaged. 

It's the meaningful smalls that lead your reader from big thing to big thing in your story. Like stepping stones across a river, they allow the reader to happily navigate between your highlights. Skip them, and the reader's attention is going to fall into the drink and get swept away. And once you lose it, it takes more than a magic trick to get it back – it takes a miracle. 

Clay Sanger is a professional technogeek by day and a writer of fiction and whatever else strikes his fancy the rest of the time. A life-long lover of all things wild, Clay spent much of his early adulthood wandering the four corners of the country in search of the weird and wonderful, the dark and the light. As chance would have it, he found them. The rest is a tale yet to be told. After meandering far and wide he returned to his native Ozarks where he lives with his dazzling wife, their sons, and a menagerie of mythical creatures both real and imagined. You can learn more at www.claysanger.com