It's details that bring a novel to life...or kills it, as the case may be.
Not only can a writer use specific details to show, rather than tell, but it's the well chosen details that can set a mood, sketch a picture, and thus bring a scene to life for the reader.
Be careful, though, there is a need for brevity when dealing with details. It's important to discern which details to include, and which to let the reader discover within their own imagination. If you provide too much detail, you risk boring the reader. Too little, and you haven't given enough to spark the reader's imagination so that they can complete the canvass to their own satisfaction.
A good exercise to educate yourself on details in writing is to pick a scene in a novel that stood out particularly well to you. A scene that you'd consider shone. Pick that scene apart word by word, paying attention specifically to the details that the author provided. Then consider what other details you added through your own imagination that completed the picture for you. Can you see how the details the author provided aided in your completing the picture? Were they specific, maybe unique, conducive to a specific style/mood, of particular interest?
The first example that popped into my mind for me to do this exercise with is actually from one of my critique partner's work. Becky Melby, with Cathy Wienke, painted a marvelous tour of a Victorian House so vividly for me in the following two paragraphs from their novel Treasuring Kate.
"Built in 1897, Heathercrest was the largest of the Victorian homes in Woodbridge, Wisconsin. It was painted in its original colors, a soft sage green with gingerbread trim the color of butter. Thirteen wooded acres protected it from being engulfed as the little lakeside town expanded.
Setting his camera back on the dresser before heading down to breakfast, Grant scooped up a pile of change and looked around the curved-walled turret room. It was this house, this room in particular, that had birthed his career in historic renovations. The thought of being able to see it only on a guided tour, the doorway cordoned off by a velvet rope, twisted something deep inside. No more treasure hunts in the gardens, no more sliding down banisters, no more stockings hung from the cherubs on the fireplace mantle, no more laughter, no more tradition. He couldn’t imagine raising children of his own without the backdrop of Heathercrest. (From Chapter 1 of Becky Melby's and Cathy Wienke's novel Treasuring Kate. This story has yet to find a publisher. I really hope it does some day soon.)
I just love this excerpt. Okay, let's look at the actual details provided in the first short paragraph.
Built in 1897
Largest Victorian home in the area
The home itself is called Heathercrest (These three facts alone paint a grandiose picture in my mind. I'm immediately drawn to think of Castle Kilbride, a local Victorian home. Facts or details like this provide the reader with data that they can associate with something concrete they are familiar with. I already have a pretty good picture of what I want Heathercrest to look like now.)
Colors of the house provided (Now I know specific details that set this house apart from the one I'm comparing it to, further making Heathercrest its own. I'm really liking it!)
Gingerbread (I love gingerbread trim, all its swirls and curves inviting me to come visit. When I picture gingerbread trim, I think of peaked roofs, attic rooms, covered veranda's, welcoming front entries,...I could go on and on, and that's just from one small detail of the house.)
Thirteen wooded acres. (What a picturesque, elite, backdrop for such a grand house. I'm thinking there might even be trails in those wooded acres. And all the critters that must live and play on such a property. Surely the yard has a birdbath and feeders situated near the home. Maybe the owner keeps binoculars in a basket sitting on a deep wooden windowsill inside the parlour.)
So in four lines of writing, I have a pretty good picture of this home in my mind's eye, and the property that surrounds it, and I've even started thinking about how the owner might live (binoculars and all). All this came from six specific, concise details provided by the author.
This post would go on forever if I attempted to go inside the house with the second paragraph's details. It's just so vivid to me, I feel like I'm actually pocketing that change from a high bureau chest of drawers, passing the wide wood-trimmed doors upstairs and descending the wooden staircase with heavy, shapely spindles guiding the way into a hallway that opens into a room with a grand fireplace. I can even envision the type of furniture this house holds, solid, sturdy, lasting.
Go ahead, pick that second paragraph apart, and enjoy the picture it provides for you. I bet it's different than mine, because you'll use your own storehouse of Victorian House memories along with the details provided to complete your canvass, and what a perfect picture yours will be for you, as mine is for me. Details, chosen wisely, can appeal to all your readers.
I challenge you to discover the details that lend themselves to a bigger picture. Include those details in your writing and let the reader's imagination paint the rest of the canvass subconsciously.
56 days left to reflect and celebrate our Saviour's birth.