The Story is in the Details

I love getting mail from my readers! Occasionally, I get a question that really makes me think. And when I write the answer, I wonder if other readers or writers might enjoy it, too. Here is an edited version of a letter I received from a retired math teacher turning his attention to writing for the first time at age 70. He was reading Beautiful Lies.

Dear Ms. Unger,

What I am impressed with most is the flow of your story and just the right amount of what I call “detail filler.” I don’t know what it’s actually called… details that flesh out the work but have little to do with the story… or does it? Some books I’ve read have turned me off by straying too deep into the fill and away from the substance of the story. You do a great job of keeping the balance.

I am working on a couple of short story ideas that are fun to work on, but I am terrible at the methods of expanding the extra details in a way that seems somewhat effortless to you.

Was it just practice for you or did it come naturally or both?

Anyway, I am thoroughly enjoying your techniques. I feel inspired to continue my writing. And hope to emulate the balance that you strike in your work.


I hear this quite a bit from writers who are just starting out: How much detail? It always reminds me of when my daughter started swimming lessons. For the longest time, she knew how to kick her legs, reach her arms, and blow bubbles. But until she figured out that all the pieces worked together, she couldn’t swim. Only when everything clicked did she become the little fish she is today.

Here’s my answer to Tony…

Hi, Tony,

Thanks for reading! And thanks so much for the very kind words.

I’ve been writing all my life, so in many ways it did come naturally to me. It has always been the place where I best express myself. Of course, at this point, I also have years of education in the craft, as well as daily writing. So I’d say it’s a combination of a natural inclination, drive, and years of practice.

The act of story telling is not just about character, though character is king. And it’s not just about plot. A writer creates a world for the reader, and it’s the details that bring that world to life. The details build character, and flesh out plot. What we see, hear, feel, and experience in any given moment is the essence of life, and the essence of story telling. Plot, character, setting, place, and voice are all woven together to create story, nothing necessarily separate from the whole. If something seems like “filler” it might be that it’s not advancing character or story, as everything must.

So, yes, do keep writing. And of course keep reading. But writing is something at which you will improve just by doing it every day. Write a story, read your story. Rewrite. You’ll see that every draft will be better than what came before.

I’ll go a little further with this…

I had a chat with Hank Phillipi Ryan earlier this year where we discussed scene. Every scene should advance character or plot, preferable both, otherwise it has to go. The same goes for everything else, including those hours of research you did on, say, taxidermy or your beautiful description of the lake house. No readers wants an information dump, no matter how much you want to share what you learned. And unless that description of the house has real relevance, resist the urge to show off your brilliant prose.

Remember that Story (yes, with a capital S) is about your readers; it’s not about you. It’s not about how much you’ve learned about your subject, and it’s not about how well you can describe something. It’s about how that exhaustive research and your beautiful writing enhances the story for the reader. The act of writing is an act of pure giving. Take yourself out of the equation and give everything to the person holding the book in her hands.

For more on craft, see posts in THE CRAFT category on my blog.  And here are some of my favorite books on writing:

On Writing by Stephen King

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufrense

Story by Robert McKee
(This is about screen writing, but it has a lot of relevance for all story telling.)