Word by Word

Practical insights for writers from Jessica P Morrell

Details to heighten conflict

Written By: Jessica Morrell - Mar• 21•16

Our daily lives are filled with insipid details, background sounds, and habitual responses. There is both sameness and comfort in the dailiness of our routines, the furnishings and clutter in our homes, the alarm clock buzzing each weekday morning.

And our storytelling needs bits of this day-to-day normality to matisse goldfish bowlestablish an authentic and breathing world.  Within the first page or so of a story the reader should know where he is in time and space, the season, the weather, and understand the tone. The opening pages sketch a map for readers to follow and it might include a few beige parts of a story. But stories aren’t beige, they’re Picasso, Matisse colored. They brim with what matters including the details that will pierce your reader,  heighten the conflict, make the abstract concrete, show where your character is at in the moment and reveal what he or she is feeling.



Have you ever stood in front of a painting that depicts an intricate scene and studied all the dynamics and tiny elements? Have you noticed how it depicts and era, culture and mood? Have you ever felt like you could step into the painting? In a similar way your readers want to step into your scenes and details anchor them there.

Successful stories often feature a character at his/her breaking point. As in life, each character’s breaking point will be idiosyncratic, but somehow the scene must convey the desperation of the moment without spelling it out. That’s where details come in–setting, props, attire, body language and posture, facial expressions– mixed into circumstances and reactions. And the best details heighten the conflict, stir in more tension and questions.

Say a couple is about to call off their engagement. Will the argument escalate while they’re are driving in heavy traffic? Or take place at their favorite Italian restaurant where the waiters know them? Will the diners at the next tables look over in concern and annoyance? Will the air smell like garlic and bread? Has the couple ordered the most expensive or cheapest Chianti on the menu?

Keep asking yourself what small details will create intimacy and communicate layers of meaning. When the drunk and broken-hearted ex-lover pounds on the door for admittance will your character be leaning against a sink filled with dirty dishes or standing amid a gleaming, spotless kitchen?

Will he/she have just showered? Dressed to go out for big night? Awakened on the couch with the Home Shopping Network chirping in the background?


MYSTIC RIVER Jimmy is restrained when he learns his daughter’s body has been found.

When the tragic news arrives will it happen in a dreaded 2 a.m. phone call; will the school principal phone at the office. Will your protagonist spot his teenage daughter or son climbing into the car belonging to a petty criminal or the bad-news friend they’re forbidden to hang out with?

Will the funeral of the too-young-to-be-gone character take place on an impossibly lovely summer afternoon or with rain falling or the ground frozen? Will the victim’s school friends huddle together, sobbing and stunned?

Last orders

Friends travel to comply with their friend’s wish to scatter his ashes

Will the mourners show up for the wake shaken and struggling to keep it together? Will the dead girl’s mother be unable to greet her guests and instead retreat to her darkened bedroom? Will the dead girl’s father look like he hasn’t slept in days? When another character shakes his hand will those hands be cold and chapped and his eyes vacant? Will the dead girl’s younger brother appear lost and dazed and scared?

Are you keeping a notebook where you spill out these observations and tidbits? Do you write about gatherings and parties and restaurant meals and moments witnessed on the street? Because tragedies, funerals, arguments have all been written thousands and thousands of times keep searching for that trifle that whispers. What fresh  angle, dark humor, or complicated emotions can you bring to these moments? What matters?

Keep writing, keep dreaming, have heart

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