the exact type of olive oil

olive oilAll my physical therapist, who is from the Netherlands, has to do is lay his hands on my neck or back and I’m all better. He’s a wonderful painter, as well as a reader, and so we spend the rest of my thirty minutes talking about his paintings and my novels. He read my first novel and loved it. And recently, he read my third novel, Love Like This. Here’s what he said about it.

The story is so good. I mean, I would get in the middle of a scene and not have any idea what was going to happen next–and then you would describe a bottle of olive oil so specifically that I felt like I could go to the grocery store and pull it off the shelf–but what I wanted was to get back to the husband and wife.

I’m not sure why it takes me so long to figure these things out. Details are good, right? Be specific. How many times have I heard this?

Well, here’s the thing. Details are good. They go toward bringing things to life. They go toward creating our characters–what Angelina might notice, Lucy might not. They go toward creating a world the reader can see and believe in.

But. They can also annoy the reader and pull her right out of a scene. They can bog a scene down.

A year ago, Pam Houston, reading a few of the pages from the novel I’m working on now, reminded me: details need to do double duty. They need to do more than just be details. Why do we care that the bartender is wiping off the counter and putting out a candle? Now I know the answer and I’ve adjusted the language.

The Writer's ChronicleAnd good for Benjamin Percy, in this month’s The Writer’s Chronicle, taking the time to go beyond the pat be more specific:

Over and over again in workshop, [students] have heard their instructor say, “Be specific.” They listen, but they go too far and end up choking the reader with details. So there should be an asterisk next to the command “Be specific.” Be specific when something is interesting. [emphasis mine]

When something is interesting, you look at it longer. You prolong and amplify. These set pieces are the most interesting moments and so they demand a slowness, an elongation. Stretch out the physical beats.

Or as Mary Gordon told me back in 2005: saturate these moments.

In other words, go light on the olive oil.

19 thoughts on “the exact type of olive oil

  1. So true, C. I’ve skipped pages of description to find the plot line in countless novels. Or just moved on to the next book. Anne Tyler is brilliant in using specific details. I think she may over describe at times, but her characters become so real for me, I think of them for days, weeks, years after The End.


  2. Pingback: Discretionary Details | Rose Hall Media Company

  3. I love Anne Tyler. Ladder of Years is my favorite. Remember how it starts? In the grocery store, in the produce department. Oh yes, what she can do with a detail.


  4. I was starting to worry your power was out. Hope you’re tucked in and warm. I’m reading Someone by Alice McDermott. Lindsey Mead mentioned it in her piece. I’m halfway into it and have underlined something on every page. McDermott’s details are gorgeous. And yes, I love Ladder of Years. I don’t remember the beginning, but I’ll never forget the housewife, Delia Grinstead.


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  6. In doing research for my Friday blog on Anne Enright I came across an interview where she said: If you want to write well you have to be particular.” Here she was talking of details.
    I like your metaphor of going light on the olive oil:)
    Interesting and useful post:)


  7. Carol, I owe you an apology. I’ve been working so hard on my novel that I just plain missed your comment in my email inbox. Thank you so much for reading the post and taking the time to leave a comment. I LOVE Anne Enright–in particular The Gathering–so I’m happy to read her comment about being “particular.” I hope you’ll be back to Catching Days!


  8. I read The Empty Armchair. You have a beautiful style of writing. I love the way you put words together:

    Boil a life down to its essence. freeze it, and see what rises.

    All I wanted was to guard what little i had, not open myself up to lose more.

    It’s as if the color black came out of the wall to cover the woman’s heart and soul.

    What lovely sentences. There are more, of course. And I really liked the link with Matisse and your childhood.

    A lovely story 🙂

    I would have written a comment on your site but could find how.


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