The Telling Detail

Since we’ve been on this topic of Showing vs. Telling, I wanted to highlight an important tool at your disposal when you’re working on “showing.” Ironically, it’s called the Telling Detail.

The Telling Detail is a word, phrase, or image that helps the reader “see” what you’re describing. It must be precise and illuminating, and to some extent, unique. Its uniqueness is often what makes it so telling.

It can be any specific detail. It can be a sight, sound, touch, taste or smell. It can be a specific thought or action. It’s one thing that has meaning and says a lot with a very few words. It pulls the reader into the experience of the story. The right detail at just the right time connects your reader with your character.

Here are some examples of nice telling details from your contest entries:

Angie Farnsworth gave us “cheap trailer walls” and “worn linoleum.”

Robbie Iobst showed a nice contrast between the “family portrait hung on our living room wall” and the reality of the family in the living room. Her “Barbie convertible” is a nice telling detail as well.

Christy’s description of a “delicate, rolling meadow leading to the manor” told us a lot about this character’s childhood home, as did the mention of “sheep” and a “cherry tree.”

Anonymous (Oct. 18, 6:05 pm) described “All the little things it takes to live—the loose change for the laundrymat, socks and underwear, deodorant…” Very concrete and visual.

Cosimod showed us a group of girls getting ready for prom with “glitter glistening on their tan faces.” Very high school.

Look around your home or office, and try to identify some things that would be a “telling detail” about you. There might be a desk, or hundreds of books, and those would certainly tell us something, but they don’t set you apart from any other writer. What do you see that would be more “telling” about who you are?

There are details… then there are telling details. Practice noticing the telling details about people and situations as you go about your daily life, and it will start to come naturally for you to incorporate them into your writing.

Rachelle Gardner is a Christian literary agent affiliated with WordServe Literary Group in Colorado.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


  1. Africakid on October 31, 2008 at 8:40 AM

    >The piles of dog hair that inevitably remain under our couch and behind the desk–even after repeated vacuuming.

    Does that detail show a miniscule snapshot of our corgi-loving ways?

    ps. Congrats on the book release!

  2. Kim Kasch on October 30, 2008 at 9:09 PM

    >The walls have become shrines.

    Photos of kids wallpaper the rooms and art projects are posted predominantly around the house.

    There, do those “telling” details say anything about me?

  3. Janet on October 30, 2008 at 7:00 PM

    >This is not a new concept for me, and I do try to find the telling detail rather than doing lengthy descriptions. But I just loved your suggestions on looking for them in real life and how to find them. Very useful.

  4. Avily Jerome on October 30, 2008 at 4:45 PM


    I understood the concept, but didn’t know what to call it. A lot of mine are mannerisms.

    One of my characters is constantly rubbing his pudgy hands together, and another adjusts her glasses.

    Now I’ll go through and see what I can do about things they have around them.


  5. Timothy Fish on October 30, 2008 at 12:21 PM

    >Yesterday evening, I lay a 175 year old book about parliamentary procedure on top of a copy of Save the Cat as I left for church.

  6. Anne L.B. on October 30, 2008 at 11:40 AM

    >Seen around my house this morning:

    A cherub’s pout pressed against the window-encased autumn leaves;

    A monitor-shaped hole in a precarious pile of tree flesh;

    A flash of clean kitchen.

    A fun exercise, even if I have yet to master it. Thanks, Rachelle!

  7. lynnrush on October 30, 2008 at 9:37 AM

    >I’ve never heard of the Telling Detail either. This week has proven to show me a lot about what I don’t know, yet about telling/showing. I’m thankful of all that’s taught here on this blog, both by Rachelle and those who comment!!

  8. Cheryl Barker on October 30, 2008 at 9:24 AM

    >Rachelle, I had never heard of the Telling Detail before. What a practical and helpful lesson — thanks for sharing it!

  9. Timothy Fish on October 29, 2008 at 7:16 AM

    >I am reminded that people don’t all agree about what is showing and what is telling. The Telling Detail is not a term I had seen before, so I went looking for what other people have said and found a book, Description by Monica Wood. If I understand what she is saying correctly, we can have a telling detail in both telling and showing. She doesn’t draw a firm line between telling and showing, but effectively draws it between narrative and scene. By her examples, she would classify Patricia’s pink marshmallow paragraph as telling.

  10. Davey on October 29, 2008 at 6:57 AM

    >Very helpful stuff, Rachelle. And good job, Christy, you got my vote.