Mushrooms in France
Bags of mushrooms in a troglodytic cellar in France

Here are two examples in which small details play a pivotal role:

Small things can be used to startle, to intensify an already troubled emotional field. In Edgar Allan Poe’s story “Ligeia,” after Rowena has died from a mysterious illness and the narrator stands by her corpse, he says, “At length it became evident that a slight, a very feeble, and a barely noticeable tinge of color had flushed up within the cheeks, and along the sunken small veins of the eyelids.” These details offer little reassurance, however, since his imagination and senses can deceive him. In an instant, these flickers of life are withdrawn: her “lips doubly shriveled and pinched up in the ghastly expression of death.”

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In Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown,” the appearance of Faith’s pink ribbon is the turning point of the story: “But something fluttered lightly down through the air and caught on the branch of a tree. The young man seized it, and beheld a pink ribbon.” At this moment, he knows in his heart she’s lost. As in “A Rose for Emily,” an emotional bang is announced with a whisper. The reader closes his eyes, expecting a blow, a figurative punch in the gut, only to feel something else: something so light and airy, it’s even more unsettling. The ribbon is animated by qualities Hawthorne grants it—Faith’s innocence and gentle grace. But the fact that it’s found in the woods shifts its meaning, as it takes on the devil’s subtle guise.

Copyright @ 2006 by Stephen Delaney

Now try these as stand-alone exercises or apply them to a scene you’re working on:

1. Write a scene that takes place just before your main character discovers something (a body, a letter kept in an old chest, an intruder, etc.). Create an air of suspense and rising tension. Then, just before the expected discovery, have your character find something small yet even more startling.

2. Use a small or distant object to embody a character’s feeling of fear, uncertainty, or longing (e.g., a woman wears a locket to remember someone she loved yet eventually left). Draw out the passage by emphasizing the object’s miniscule features.