How to Write Descriptively with Detail Clusters

Have you ever looked back on a scene you’ve written and wondered why it feels a bit ... generic?

You’ve developed amazing characters. You’ve crafted a fascinating plot. It flows, but something is missing.

The missing ingredient might just be detail.

Let’s look at a paragraph from Barbara Delinsky’s Sweet Salt Air, first with the details stripped out:

"The fog couldn’t dull the colours of the boats. Nor could the smell of the sea overpower that of the restaurant. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier in her sight."

It’s decent, right? It flows. There’s movement. It’s somewhat descriptive. Now, let’s look at the original:

"The hovering fog couldn’t dull the reds and blues of the boats. Nor could the smell of seaweed overpower that of the Chowder House grill. Bobbing on her toes, she clutched her hands at her mouth to contain herself, while with agonizing precision and a grinding of gears, the ferry slowed and began to turn. She moved along the side to keep the pier front and center in her sight."

Suddenly you’re right there, on the ferry, seeing the island of Quinnipeague come into view off the bow. You can feel that sense of anticipation and familiarity twirling around in the protagonist’s mind.

What a difference a few details make.

If you tend to see scenes in brilliant detail in your mind’s eye but struggle to get that same vision onto the page, detail clusters might just be your new best friend. These scrumptious morsels are easy and fun to create. Incorporating details into your writing becomes far less painstaking with detail clusters at your side.

Let’s meet these helpful critters, shall we?

What is a detail cluster?

A detail cluster is a collection of details, customized to suit your work-in-progress and preferred genre, along a certain theme. To give you an idea, the detail cluster for Alice, my current protagonist, includes things like cosy sweaters, a phoenix tattoo, and fluff "gifted" from her cat.

You could create detail clusters for:

  • each of the seasons: 
    1. crisp leaves in autumn
    2. a snowfall's hush in winter
    3. the scent of spring's cherry blossoms
    4. the sound of a lawnmower in summer
  • historical periods:
    1. typical foods for nobility in 16th century France
    2. flight maneuvers used during World War Two
  • character development:
    1. nervous habits
    2. jobs and careers
    3. distinctive physical characteristics

This is something you can add to over time, so narrow things down to just one set of detail clusters for now. These can be specific to one story or useful to your writing process in general.

If you want to create detail clusters for your characters, for example, you might have one each for your protagonist, antagonist, and main supporting characters.

As another example, if you're writing a series with a lawyer as your protagonist, you might have detail clusters for the names of legal documents, the crimes they typically defend, and Latin terminology they sprinkle into their speech in court.

What other detail clusters could you create?

How do you organize detail clusters?

As with any reference material for writing, you’ll want to keep detail clusters easy to access.

To keep them handy, you could add them to a bullet journal, a story binder, Google Drive, index cards (easy to keep in a handbag, backpack, or purse), Trello, or Scrivener.

It may take some experimentation to figure out how and where to keep your detail clusters. So far I prefer keeping the clusters together as much as possible (rather than, for example, adding the detail cluster for my current protagonist to the other information I have about her). I may need to access different detail clusters at the same time, and rather than flipping from section to section, trying to find all the different ones, it’s easier to have them in one spot. That way, whether I want to use them as a writing prompt or to spice up a scene (we’ll talk below about different ways to use them) it’s easy to find whatever I need.

Even if you are keeping your detail clusters together in one spot, you may want to create some separation within that spot for ease of reference. Clusters for each of the seasons might want to share a page, for example, or clusters developed from research for a historical fiction novel.

If you decide to group clusters this way, try this method to decide how much space to allocate for each:

1. Start on a fresh page.

2. Add a heading that makes sense for all these clusters.

3. Decide whether to write them in a list format or more like a cloud. The former is more predictable space-wise, while the latter can feel a bit less restrictive.

4. If you think you’ll want to add any decorative elements, leave a bit of extra space around your list-to-be, but don’t add any decoration yet. You don’t want your cluster to be curtailed prematurely for fear of running into the edge of the world’s cutest doodled frame.

5. Beginning with one cluster, add as many details as you’d like. Be sure to leave a bit of spare room at the end for a few more details to be added over time. If you end up needing more space in the future, you can make a “Part 2” version of these clusters.

6. If you want to add any decorative elements, like a cute border, now is the time to do it.

7. Measure how much space was taken up by the first cluster, including the extra space at the end and any decorative bits. This is the amount of space to allocate for a similar type of cluster.

How do you populate detail clusters?

You can find the details to populate your clusters just about anywhere. The only rule is to keep the details short and comprehensible.

The “comprehensible” bit is especially important when you’re writing about something new to you: if you’re writing about a criminal lawyer in Canada, for example, don’t put R. v. Jordan in a “cases they might reference” detail cluster unless you’ll remember (or have an easy reference elsewhere) that it relates to whether an accused has been tried within a reasonable time frame.

The best place to begin is your own mind. Write down what you know. Write down what comes to mind as you’re recording what you know. Then, and only then, move on to other sources of inspiration, such as:

  • reading a book or magazine
  • watching TV or a movie
  • playing a video game
  • doing research for your work-in-progress
  • everyday observations of the world around you, especially if you engage all your senses
  • trying something new (as extensive as a new hobby or as simple as a new recipe)
  • character development exercises
  • asking a friend (they don’t have to be a writer) about one of their passions
  • browsing Pinterest

How do you use detail clusters?

Now that you have these scrumptious clusters of detail at hand, what next? You could get up to all sorts of mischief. Here are a few ideas to light that creative fire:

Combine details into a writing prompt

If you're at a loss for what to write next, take a few of the details from your clusters and write them at the top of a page. This works on paper or electronically.

From there, tease out a bit of writing from those details. It doesn't have to be an entire scene (although it could be). Start by creating a moment in time.

For example, say I wrote "phoenix tattoo + muffin tin + howling wind" at the top of my page: a character detail (my protagonist), a story detail (kitchen cosiness is a central part of this story), and a seasonal detail. I could roughly spin that out into something like this:

"While the wind crashed against the windows, making clear that it, too, would like a muffin if only it had a mouth, Alice carried on arranging the tiny morsels of carroty goodness on a plate. Red-and-gold painted feathers skirted the rim of the plate. It didn't feel like that long ago that she'd first seen it in the shop window, let alone brought it home and added it to her collection. She'd needed the fire in her life; needed the reminder that she, too, could rise from the ashes and live brightly again. That same reminder was permanently etched in her shoulder in exquisite detail by countless tiny pinpricks."

As a writing prompt, this serves a few different purposes. I could use that now as the jumping off point for a scene; delve into what came up as a form of character development (how far does that phoenix collection span? has she shared the deeper meaning with anyone else?); or simply let it be and move onto writing the story itself, now that my creative spirit is feeling a little lighter and warmed up.

Use and expand on a detail to show a character's state of mind

If one of the details is a family photo with pride of place on your protagonist’s bedside table, imagine the different emotional states conveyed by your protagonist:

  • throwing it across the room
  • brushing fingertips over the faces beneath the glass
  • turning it facedown on the bedside table or putting it in a drawer

Use a detail as a prop to add variety to scenes

This is similar to the last idea, but rather than the detail being a key part of the scene, it weaves seamlessly into the background of the scene.

Say, for example, you have a character who wears glasses most of the time. If a scene takes place on a cold winter’s day and the frames of the glasses are metal, they’ll lay a freezing stripe across the bridge of the character’s nose. The character might slip their glasses off and use them to gesture when explaining something.

This isn’t something you want to overdo, but repetition of details here and there make for a more consistent, believable world. Dive into your detail clusters and pick out a few that can be revisited throughout the story.

However you choose to use them, detail clusters open up oodles of possibilities for vivid storytelling. They’re also one of the least overwhelming ways to liven up lackluster writing.

You don’t have to create a galaxy of clusters to enjoy the benefits, either. Start with one and see how it goes!

If you enjoyed this post, these ones might spark a few creative fires: The Art of Transmogrifying Character Notes and Bullet Journaling for Fiction Writers.

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