Recently I sat in a workshop with a Big Deal writer who happened to also be my teacher. And at some point as he listened to every student read their work, he’d get super excited about one thing: an authenticating detail. There’s an excellent piece by Dave Koch on the subject here, but basically, it’s the one detail that makes the story come alive, that reaches you out and places you inside the world the author has created.
It doesn’t matter which genre you’re working. In a fantasy novel, this detail could be an element of the setting. In realism, it could be a tic you give your character, or a single action they take, or an item they own.
Stories will have more than one authenticating detail, but the key to an authenticating detail is that it be subtle and so organic to the story that it doesn’t jump out at the reader at the very moment it’s sucking them in. Essentially, this is the highest level of showing, not telling. It’s so seamless that it draws no attention to itself even as it evokes an emotional or intellectual response; the words cease to be a story and become an experience in the writer-reader mind meld that marks the best of books.
This all sounds very vague, doesn’t it? Mmm, yes. That’s because this is an elusive thing to do, weaving in the authenticating detail. It’s a reflection of an author’s voice and the specific world of the story, so it’s the kind of thing readers can point out to you as the thing that captured them, but no one can tell you up front how to do.
So, let’s look at an example of an authenticating detail in a character’s thoughts:
“She retreated to her favorite weeping willow to follow Osanne’s next order. It sat closest to the woods, and she slipped into the quiet of its canopy. When she was little, this space had felt more like the log chapel in Destrehan, the one the Capuchin priests had built. She had only been once, and she hadn’t like the old priest who presided over it. He’d dug his fingers into her jaw and they poked like chicken bones as he stared at her eyes and frowned. But she had never forgotten how the little church felt, like thousands of prayers had soaked into its walls.
Sylvie wondered how many of her prayers had soaked into the willow’s roots and branches since she had first learned to pray. It wasn’t the way the priests had taught, but she had learned from Osanne that what the priests taught was a place to start, and then you had to season it like a fricassee to get the full flavor out of it.”
These two paragraphs are full of sensory details, flashes of memory. And for each reader, the authenticating detail may be different. That means it’s your job as a writer to think of as many as you can so you have the best chance of pulling your reader in WITHOUT bogging your story down in excessive detail. NO PROBLEM, RIGHT?
The reason the highlighted detail authenticates the scene, for me, is that without knowing much about this Sylvie person, this internal thought has revealed some tangible and intangible things at the same time. In the abstract, it reveals that Sylvie isn’t ground in religious orthodoxy—that she has a tendency to think for herself. In the concrete, it reveals a glimpse of her daily life, in this case, what and how she eats.
Here’s another example where the authenticating detail is in the setting:
“Everything is like that. Stores, schools, even churches. Some people do different stuff with their front yards so you can kind of tell places apart, but . . . mostly everything is beige. The homeowner’s association loves beige, and that’s what they make you paint everything, or they fine you. There’s a lot of names for beige too. My house is painted Grecian Summer, which is a pinkish beige, and Olivia’s is New Sahara. That’s yellowish beige. I can show you Sand Dune, Creamy Mocha, and Dreamscape. (Pro tip: the guy who named that dreamed in beige.) I will give you ten bucks if you can see the difference between any of those.”
This is such an utterly relatable image that it takes you right back to every suburb like this that you’ve ever seen, but it’s developed beyond simply describing the houses and being monochromatic or boring. We get a sense of the narrator’s finely tuned sense of absurdity as she runs down the color names, and that’s the authenticating detail, the names of the beige she notices, not the beige itself. We learn both about the physical appearance of the town she lives in and her relationship to it in this single scene.
It’s tricky business, but watch for it as you read. When you stumble across a character’s internal thought or a detail about the world that really resonates with you, STOP. Pick it apart. Think about why that detail comes to life for you. What is the subtle work that detail is doing at multiple levels that brings a scene or character alive?
Go forth, writers. AUTHENTICATION REQUIRED.
Melanie Bennett Jacobson is an avid reader, amateur cook, and champion shopper. She consumes astonishing amounts of chocolate, chick flicks, and romance novels. She lives in Southern California with her husband and three kids and a series of doomed houseplants. Melanie is a former English teacher who loves to laugh and make others laugh. In her down time (ha!), she writes romantic comedies for Covenant and maintains her humorous slice-of-life blog. Her sixth novel, Always Will, hits shelves in October. Melanie’s contemporary YA novels are represented by Alyssa Henkin.