Making your story come to life is a matter of zooming in for close-ups of the little things. Minute details can go a long way to spicing up a setting or making a character stand out. The smallest elements loom large when it comes to making your book memorable.
When it comes to the room a scene takes place in, what makes it stand out? Say your characters are enjoying a spontaneous romp in a suburban middle-class living room. What do you furnish it with to paint a picture for your readers?
Think about the furniture that decorates your space. A tan couch and blue recliner do little to tell us about the tastes of their owners. Are we looking at grand antiques? Lovingly restored shabby chic pieces? Sleek-lined contemporary? And don’t forget accessories like dead plants, framed circus posters, cheap tourist knick-knacks; pieces that stand out and give us information.
Look at this passage from Alien Conquest in which the chapel’s main focal point differentiates it from what you might think of when you visualize a church:
Cassidy entered the chapel. Her grandfather sat on the bench closest to the altar, his bald head gleaming in the soft colors of the stained light glass and altar candles. She hurried forward.
She knelt before the altar and the mammoth symbol of her religion that hovered behind it. “The emblem of great religious perversion” one illicit book in her collection claimed. “The North American bloc’s final insult to the world it has consumed.”
At the center of the icon was a six-pointed star representing the former Jewish faith. Radiating from it were four bars, the cross of Christianity. Topping the brushed gold figure was a crescent moon with a five-pointed star perched on its lower tip for Islam.
It’s not enough that your character has curly blond hair, stands about five and a half feet tall, and wears jeans. You need details that make this person stand out, especially if it’s a minor character that resembles two or three other characters. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve read in which a character pops in and out of the story, but I can’t remember who they are. You need something memorable that will jog the reader’s memory. Raw bitten nails, chipped black nail polish, a birthmark, scars, a nose hooked like a bald eagle’s beak ... something.
Also take a look at the clothing for a specific style, jewelry, and cologne. Maybe the character carries a ballpoint pen that leaks ink all over him. And what does he carry in his pockets? Change, his dead girlfriend’s picture, ribbed condoms?
How does your character move? A shambling limp is distinctive as is someone with ramrod straight posture who takes great strides. Maybe he shuffles along hunched over as if the weight of the world has been placed upon his shoulders.
Another useful detail can be nervous habits. Does the lady in the corner play with her rings or twirl her hair around a finger? All it takes is one little element to stand out in the reader’s mind to make them take notice of a character.
Take a look at this description of Naya, the heroine from the WIP The Font. See if this description from the hero’s point of view gives you a mental picture of her, one you will remember throughout the story:
Taken piece by piece, she was not a beauty. Her pale blond hair, reaching to her waist, was too flyaway and untamed. Her eyes, as green as the ubiquitous pine needles of Georgia, were too large, too round to balance her tiny chin. Her nose was long and straight, and her lips, while well-formed, were thin slashes of pink. Her body was so willowy as to make her appear taller than she actually was, especially in the sweeping gown she wore tonight, its green skirt that matched her eyes reaching the marble floor. There was an aloof restraint in her demeanor that suggested she was above the pettiness of the world around her, but gazing at her for only a few seconds told the observer this regal bearing was but a mask she wore. Beneath it, there was a nervous fluttering of fingers, a jerkiness of the darting eyes that took in everything, and a tension in her stance that spoke of a willingness to take flight. She was at her heart a wild thing, as untamed as the floating froth of hair that moved with its own life around her torso.
In parts, Naya was not even pretty. But put together, she was striking, a pale will o’ the wisp that pleased the eye even as it confounded it. That such a dainty ethereal being gave Heriolf his power over all other vampires made her even more compelling.
When the action takes place in the great outdoors, think distinctive. Think about it: the Great Smoky Mountains look quite different from the Rockies. The pink sand seashore and blue waters of Eleuthera in the Bahamas is little like the blond beaches and green ocean off North Carolina’s Emerald Isle.
What is the weather doing during this scene? What sounds and sights are going on? On a playground there might be a child at the top of the slide too frightened to come down without coaxing. When I think of Atlantic City in New Jersey I’m reminded of the panhandlers on the boardwalk, especially the one who played a kazoo for money. Here in southeast Georgia, there’s always a turkey buzzard flying overhead looking for roadkill and porpoises' round silvery backs rolling through the shrimp boats’ wakes.
I wanted a background that reflected the stiff, unnatural lives of the nuns in Alien Conquest, so I when I created their colony/convent, I went with the vision of manufactured geometric shapes to create a landscape on the moon of Europa:
Degorsk peered around the depressing compound, wondering why anyone would choose to live in such surroundings. Suspended lights kept the compound from succumbing to the total darkness of this side of Europa. They emitted little illumination, but for sensitive Kalquorian eyes, it was more than enough to see by.
Besides the low rectangular building with the pointed spire shooting towards the star-strewn sky, two rows of squat box-shelters each sat in the center of a square of trimmed green grass. Straight walkways led from building to building, with a main thoroughfare between the double strings of structures. Like most Kalquorians, Degorsk preferred the natural state of vegetation growing wild, even on terraformed colonies. This collection of squares, rectangles and straight lines appeared aberrant to his eyes. He felt if he spent too long looking at it, he’d go crazy.
The Detail that is More than Window Dressing
While you’re looking for a key detail to set apart a scene, keep in mind that there are certain objects that cannot be used simply to dress up your background. Weapons such as guns, knives, swords, and the like are never mere elements to give a vibe. I can’t remember who uttered this memorable quote, but it’s a guide I live by: “If there’s a gun in the room, at some point in the story it had better go off.”
Think about in the movie Aliens when Ripley shows off how she can operate the exoskeleton loader to the hardened Marines. Later, she uses it to battle the big mama alien. In the Star Trek: The Next Generation series, if Worf was handling a batliff at the beginning of the show, you knew he’d be doing battle with it by the end.
Remember in Alien Rule when Jessica’s clan is touring her around their home and they come to Bevau’s private room?
“This is my room,” Bevau announced, the door to yet another chamber opening. Jessica stepped in, marveling at the array of weaponry displayed on the walls. Everything from crude stone knives to the latest technology of crowd-control guns had its place. It was a personal armory fit to make any battalion commander jealous.
That's right, a room full of weapons. Something was coming off those walls to threaten someone at some point:
Pwaldur pulled a long, wicked blade from his belt, and Clajak recognized it from Bevau’s collection, one he himself had given to his Nobek as a clanning present. The vicious curved knife was serrated in such a way that it would slide easily into a victim and shred the flesh to ribbons on the way back out.
Weapons don’t show unless they’re going to blow (or shoot or stab). That’s the rule.
Otherwise, the sky is the limit. Enjoy bringing out those little aspects to create the right mood or characterization to your story. It can make all the difference between an okay story and a memorable one.