Depth of Field, Using Detail in Fiction (excerpt)
Fiction needs focus. What is to be imagined must be distinguished from what is not.
Detail must specify, clarify and distinguish what is to be imagined. It must not blur, conflate or distract, at least, not unintentionally.
Background and foreground, hidden detail, ambiguous detail; all are possible, even desirable, but they must be intentional, and necessary. When the guide shows you a surprise view it is you who is surprised, not he. The reader is following a path, not finding one. The writer has done the exploration already. He has planned what the reader will come upon unexpectedly, has already discovered it.
It is a commonplace feature of Creative Writing courses that detail must be accurate, well-observed, and used sparingly. The precise way in which a man ties his tie, I’m sure you have been told, may reveal more about him than a page full of other information. Of course, that might be contingent on us knowing rather a lot about the different ways of tying a tie, and who might be expected to favour them, and why. The significance of the detail is dependent upon us knowing about it!
The full essay is only available in print. Get it here.