Posted by: Kathleen Mix | April 24, 2013

Magic in the Details

Every book needs a well-structured plot and interesting characters, but often the difference between a good book and a wonderful book is in the details. When the author chooses the perfect details to compliment a setting or mood, our reading experience is enriched.
The perfect details are those appropriate to one particular story.
If a room needs a lamp, just any lamp won’t do. Is it a floor lamp or desk lamp, utilitarian or ornate? Is the base stenciled with pink rosebuds or in the shape of a ceramic elephant? Is the lamp new or an antique? Is it a hand-me-down or was it a wedding gift from a favorite aunt? When turned on, does it throw a bright, glaring light or produce ominous shadows that fit well with a feeling of suspense? Would the character in your story own such a lamp?
All these details won’t, and should not, be included in the text. But an author chooses the perfect details by knowing his or her characters and story, and the world she’s created, intimately. And when that’s the case, the lamp mentioned in the story will fit perfectly into the scene.
When the scarred old lamp with the frayed cord that a heroine purchased at a flea market because she’s broke and out of work blinks on and off and then leaves her in the dark in the midst of a storm, we find the darkness believable. Of course that old lamp was unreliable, that’s why it was so cheap.
But we understand she couldn’t afford anything better and still have money to buy food for her child. We know she is willing to put up with an occasional episode of darkness. Plus we’re fond of the lamp. It’s special. She had one exactly like it as a child, and it reminds her of happy days when she had parents who read her bedtime stories and loved her.
Too bad the lamp cutting out kept her from seeing the slightly open window and the shadow of the man on the fire escape.
But wait. The apartment complex’s security guard, who saw her bringing the lamp home and offered to repair the wiring, notices her windows have gone dark. That lamp was a fire hazard and could burn down the whole building. Maybe he should stop by with his flashlight and fix it. He could at least check to make sure she was okay. He’s been looking for an excuse to get to know her better.
The lamp fits the scene. If it had been new, we’d question why it would blink. We’d expect it to be reliable, and find the incident less believable. The security guard would have no valid reason to knock on the heroine’s door. We’d never know about the special lamp that had brightened our heroine’s childhood.
The type of lamp a character should own is not a choice a thoughtful author will make lightly. No detail is too small to not be considered carefully. The perfect details can weave magic.



  1. Excellent post. A few well thought out details make the difference between an average book and a great read. Your example of the lamp was outstanding.


  2. I completely agree with you. I think every line of a novel should propel the plot forward or give insight into the character. And I love atmosphere and tone. With all the first person narratives now, sometimes I feel “voice” is squeezing everything else out.
    Great post! 🙂
    ~ Lexa (your agency sister)


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