I’ve said that you don’t want to overwhelm your reader with extraneous detail jumbled all over the foreground of your book. I’ve said that detail woven unobtrusively into the background can enrich the reader’s experience.
Now Imma tell you about unimportant details that aren’t – or weren’t – actually vital to the story but have been used to brilliant effect.
Good Duck #1 Anne’s red hair
ANNE OF GREEN GABLES‘ heroine was an orphan with red hair. That could have stayed in the background, referenced in passing now and then just to remind the reader. Instead, Anne’s red hair is used almost as a symbol of her status as an orphan; it’s not just a detail, but is part of who she is. She’s morbidly sensitive about it, and Gilbert’s calling her “Carrots” is a major event in the book and in their lives.
Good Duck #2 Mma Ramotswe’s size, beverage, transportation
In THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY, we meet Precious Ramotswe. She’s “traditionally built” (large), drinks red bush tea, and drives a tiny white van. None of these are necessarily important but, again, they become symbols of who Mma is. Mma is traditional in many ways, even though she has followed her father’s advice and sold her legacy cows to open a business usually dominated by men. Red bush tea is not just African, it’s local. Her loyalty to her tiny white van, just big enough and no bigger, brings her together with the man she eventually marries. It also serves to highlight a positive trait that doubles as a flaw: an unthinking loyalty to the past that can turn into an unwillingness to change for the better.
Good Duck #3 Piggy’s specs
In LORD OF THE FLIES, one of the main boys, Piggy, wears spectacles. They didn’t need to be anything but a tag to (along with his overweight, his asthma, and his dull ordinariness) differentiate him from the others. But Golding makes them a symbol of technology, useful for starting a fire for cooking and signaling for help. Their loss is devastating, and their destruction signals a willful descent into sub-human barbarism.
A WRITING PROMPT FOR YOU: Pick a random detail in your work in progress and think about how you could make it important. I’m not challenging you to DO anything about it, just play with the idea.