Authenticating Details

by Dave Koch

I want to know more is the most common of the old saw workshop comments, the sort of thing new writers hear over and over. I’ve seen it happen a dozen times: a student passes her story through the workshop and sits there, quietly, while the other participants—whatever their disagreements, whatever else they have to say—come to the universal and binding conclusion that they want to know more about her story’s main character. Or about the setting. Or about some minor character who pops in on page two and then disappears. Or about the main character’s parents’ relationship when he was young, years before the divorce we find out about on page twelve. After silently sweating through half an hour of this demand to know more (my students aren’t allowed to talk at all while their stories are being discussed), she takes her story home and gets mad.

Take this, she says to the workshop, and then throws a kitchen’s sink worth of detail about her main character at the story’s second draft. Now, in draft two, we know the color of the main character’s eyes on sunny days and cloudy days, know the character’s exact height (to the fraction of an inch) and his height when he’s sitting in a particularly small chair. We know the name of his four cousins, though his cousins don’t otherwise appear in the story. We know many details of his childhood, and what his office looks like at work. We know everything anyone could ever hope to know about this character; there’s nothing left to tell about him. The draft doubles in size. It goes through the workshop again.

Everyone agrees the revision’s a big improvement, and the group has many different opinions, lots of advice and questions. The one thing they agree on, the thing that makes the whole group nod their heads in unison, is that, in the next draft, they’d like to know more about the main character.

My student’s workshop group, like all readers of literary fiction, want to be able to figure things out for themselves; they want to do work. When a story allows you to do this sort of work—to come to your own decision, to come to your own conclusions—you participate in that story. And that sense of feeling like you participated, like your opinions and interpretations matter, is a big part of the pleasure you take from reading literary fiction. Authenticating details are the kind of telling details that allow the reader to do his work.

When the workshop group read my student’s first draft, they felt like they weren’t given enough details to do that sort of reader-work, so they were left wanting more. When they read the second draft, the draft stuffed full of every imaginable detail, they felt the same way. The sort of details that my hypothetical student gave about her story’s main character—everyday ordinary details—weren’t allowing her readers to do this sort of work. When readers do the work of figuring things out for themselves, they stop feeling like they want to know more.

Ordinary details treat the reader like he’s lazy. I’ll do the work for you, they say, or, worse, There’s no work to be done here. Move right along. Authenticating details say something completely different. Now what do you think? they say. If you’re not here, reader, if you’re not participating, they say, there’s no story at all. When writers allow readers to do their own work by using authenticating details readers aren’t left feeling like they wants to know more.

Here are five steps you can follow to make your readers feel like they know just enough

1. Make the decision to capture whatever it is you’re trying to describe. Set a trap.

The first step is to make the decision to capture—instead of describe—whatever it is you want to authenticate. That’ll give your readers an opportunity to do some work. Good authenticating details set a trap that captures a small piece, a tiny aspect, of what’s being described in a way that allows the reader to come to understand what’s being described for himself. Brace yourself: finding authenticating details that really capture something about what’s being described isn’t easy.

Authenticating details are anecdotal, little tiny narratives in themselves. In Amy Hempel’s “The Most Girl Part Of You,” she authenticates her young narrator’s prior experience with relationships this way:

I had only been kissed once before. The fellow had made me think of those kids whose mouths cover the spigot when they drink from a fountain. When I had pulled away from him, this fellow had said, “B-plus.”

I’ve taught this story a hundred times, and no one’s ever told me he wants to know more about her lack of experience. One little detail, and readers get the whole picture. They work it out for themselves.

Here’s another example: in Katherine Heiny’s “How To Give The Wrong Impression,” a second person story about two graduate school roommates, she authenticates Gwen’s feelings for Boris through anecdotes like this one:

You don’t have boyfriends anymore, and these days you don’t even have dates. You tell Boris this is because you have too much work to do, and often on Saturday nights you make a big production of hauling your Psychology of Women textbook out to the sofa and propping it on your lap, even though it hurts your thighs and you never read it.

Instead, you talk to Boris, who is similarly positioned on the other end of the sofa, his feet touching yours. Sometimes he lies with his head in your lap and falls asleep that way. You never get up and leave him; you stay, touching his hair, idly clicking through the channels, watching late-night rodeo.

One night Boris wakes up during the calf roping. Oh, my God, he says, watching a calf do a four-legged split, its heavy head wobbling, This is breaking my heart.

All of these anecdotal details—the pretend studying, the guy falling asleep in her lap, the calf comment at the very end—allow you as the reader to figure Gwen’s feelings out on your own. Her feelings are captured, not described. Heiny captures the relationship by talking about the rodeos and heavy psych books, not by talking about the relationship itself. You don’t want to know more about how Gwen feels about Boris because the psych books and rodeos allow you to figure it out for yourself.

In these examples, Hempel and Heiney set traps for the readers. The readers kneel down and open the traps up and see what they’ve got.

2. Identify details you don’t need for this capturing. Ordinary details are your enemy.

It’s much easier to find the sort of detail that will allow your readers to do work once you’ve identified the sort of detail that won’t allow them to do work, so that’s the next step. Make a list of things the reader doesn’t need to know about whatever it is that’s being described.

A good example of an ordinary detail, lifted from one of my student’s stories is this sentence: He wore a yellow sweater. I don’t know anything about this guy because I can’t do any work about him. I know the color of his sweater, but I don’t care about his sweater. It’s just a detail, just an adjective. Leaning too heavily on adjectives is a surefire way to go wrong.

In “The Most Girl Part of You,” here’s a list of things we don’t know about Mr. B-Plus: his age, anything about what he looks like, how she felt about him (was she in love with this boy? We have no idea.), how many times this boy’s kissed other girls like a spigot, how hurt she was by his comment, etc. All of those details are left out.

And in “How To Give The Wrong Impression” we don’t know just how long she’s been pining after Boris, weather Boris pines after her, too, just how they met, or all the ordinary details you’d expect to use to describe Gwen’s feelings for Boris, to describe their relationship.

We don’t get the ordinary details because, counter-intuitively, all those ordinary details wouldn’t be able to do the capturing work that the tiny paragraphs of authenticating detail manage to let the reader figure out. Ordinary details attempt to do the work for the reader, and they always fail. Authenticating details let the reader do the work himself. When you’re trying to really authenticate something in your fiction—when you’ve already made the decision to capture it—leave the ordinary details out.

3. Look to unusual details to capture the big picture. Unusual details let readers do work.

In “The Most Girl Part Of You,” we get introduced to one of the main characters right away:

Jack “Big Guy” Fitch is trying to crack his teeth. He swishes a mouthful of ice water, then straightaway throws back slugs of hot coffee.

“Like in Antarctica,” he says, where, if you believe what Big Guy tells you, the people are forever cracking their teeth when they come in from the cold and gulp their coffee down.

It’s a teeny little thing, a small detail, that right away tells us more about the character than any list of everyday ordinary details could hope to. It’s a perfect sort of authenticating detail because it lets the reader draw his own conclusions about Big Guy instead of attempting to do that work for the reader. We don’t know anything about the color of Big Guy’s hair or what sort of shirt he’s wearing or just how old he is or all the other sort of information new writers routinely provide about their characters, but we feel like we’re getting to know him. It’s small things, unusual things, the sort of things you’d probably over look when writing a first draft, that really let the reader some work.

Your job, your work as a writer, is to find the sort of teeth cracking details that allow your readers to feel like they know something about whatever it is you’re trying to describe.

4. Lie, cheat, and steal. Do whatever you have to. You don’t necessarily capture the truth by being truthful.

Let’s say one of the characters in your story is really tall, and that’s important to your story for some reason. Instead of giving the reader his exact height (six-foot-three), it might be a better idea to say something about how he always smacks his head on the doorframe of his girlfriend’s apartment. It might even be a good idea to imply that he’s always smacking his head on doorframes, even though that’s an exaggeration. You’re not obligated to lie in service of your attempts at authentication, but you’re not obligated to tell the truth, either. Your only job is to capture the truth. If that takes a bit of double-dealing, so be it.

5. Trust the reader. Don’t explain something after you’ve captured it.

Inexperienced writers have a tendency to over-explain, to, once they’ve let the reader do a little work for himself, do that work all over again for the reader just in case he missed it. Train yourself to trust your readers.

I can imagine my hypothetical student writing a great little authenticating detail like the spigot example above, a little paragraph that gives just the right amount of information to let the reader really take it away on his own. And then I can imagine her writing a second paragraph that explains everything she’d hoped the reader would take away from that authenticating detail. Over-explaining takes all the power away from the authentication. Avoid that by letting the reader figure things out for himself.

This article originally appeared in The Writer magazine.