All Details are Not Created Equally

by Craig Buchner

I have a vivd memory from graduate school at Western Carolina, almost 20 years ago. My thesis director commented on my final project, a collection of a few short stories. He said that the details I chose in those stories were particularly precise and thoughtful. At that time in my writing development, I was including details that quickly came to mind, and I would settle on one or maybe two details within a scene to highlight—choosing efficiency of language over any greater world building. At the time, it was easier to write in a more clipped, Hemingway-style, and it saved time so I could focus more energy on developing the narrative and plot.

Two decades on—after publishing two books—I still write like this, but it isn’t for the same reasons. Instead, I realize that a focused detail or two can add a deeper layer or dimension to a story.

For example, in my collection of short stories Brutal Beasts I include a story called “Held in Place by Teeth that Face Inward,” in which the protagonist goes to a dive bar with his brother after said brother is arrested. While the brother orders “two Mich Lights and two shots of Fireball,” the protagonist settles on a Sprite “with a slice of lime if you got it.” This drink choice allows me, the author, to establish that the protagonist is sober and moreover that he carries a backstory far more nuanced than the present story at hand. The protagonist makes choices in the scene based on a history he carries, yet that history never has to be explicitly told.

For me, this example illustrates that a well chosen, intentional detail can carry a significant amount of weight within a story that, if positioned well, can establish tension within a scene and between characters, and it supersedes unnecessary backstory or a lengthly explanation, which might slow down the story too much. Too many specific details, in this view, can dilute a scene, leaving a reader to wonder where they should focus their attention, and ultimately lose sight of a key detail that might come back later in the story to reinforce a climactic moment.

I’ve always been attracted to brevity in stories, but it’s taken me a couple decades to understand the true power of it within storytelling. So, I leave you with this thought: Details matter, but not all of them. Choose wisely!

Learn Short Story Writing with Craig

BEGINNING NEXT TUESDAY: “Writing the Short Story,” three Tuesdays, September 26, October 3 & 10, 6:00-8:00 p.m., virtual via Zoom. 

“Cut the piano in half with a chainsaw.” How can this advice influence us to write the best short stories? In this three-week course, we’ll learn how to write a captivating scene for a short story, and explore what a successful scene should accomplish. We will also break down the essential elements of a short story, including character, setting, and dialogue. In lieu of workshopping, writing exercises will give students opportunities to apply these lessons to their own work. And what about that “piano”? We’ll hear that story in the first class!. Info

About Craig

Craig Buchner holds an M.F.A. from the University of Idaho and a M.A. in English from Western Carolina University. He’s taught writing at Brevard College, Washington State University, and Portland Community College. His debut collection of short stories, Brutal Beasts (NFB Publishing), was chosen as an “Indie Book of the Year” in 2022 by Kirkus Reviews. He is also the author of the novel Fish Cough (Buckman Press), which was named an “Indie Books We Love” by LoveReading in 2023. Craig lives with his family in Charlotte.

Piece by Piece

by Jaime Pollard-Smith

“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. In life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly wing.” ~Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees

Kintsugi is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. The word beautifully translates to “golden joinery.” This process involves piecing together fragments of broken pottery and filling in the cracks with gold. The shimmering seams not only add value, but they create a one of a kind piece that cannot be replicated. Brokenness builds beauty. I like to apply this same process when writing creative nonfiction.

My writing students often struggle with knowing where to begin. How far back do they need to travel to enter the story? They feel a burden to provide all of the context up front. We are conditioned to produce “Once upon a time…” and “Happily ever after…” stories; yet that is never how our minds actually construct meaning. Readers might crave chronology, but it does not represent our internal life. Our life itself is an act of “golden joinery,” which is why I propose my students dive right into the messy middle. They can pick any moment from their life that they remember vividly. William Zinsser encourages writers to think small. If they have held onto a memory, it is there for a reason. Writers such as Anne Lamott teach that we don’t have to know what we are doing in order to just start the process of writing. Writers might not even know a beginning until they figure out where they are going.

Once the writer feels the freedom to write in fragmented pieces, the possibilities are endless. It becomes a process of discovery rather than production. I tell my students to write in vivid detail, capture the feeling and paint the picture. Show us the sweater, the sunset, the creaky staircase, the broken crayons, the hole in the sock, or the tear stained cheek. Zoom in again and again like exploring different pinned spots on a map. Reel us in, then step out and re-enter a new time and place. These snapshots can be joined in a beautiful new arrangement somewhere down the road. Don’t worry yourself with those details at the start. Enjoy the unfolding as you pick up the pieces.

Explore writing piece by piece with Jaime Pollard-Smith and Zeba Mehdi: “Framing Our Experience: A Life in Pieces” at Charlotte Lit, Tuesday, September 12, 6:00-8:00 p.m. Info

Jaime Pollard-Smith is a full-time writing instructor at Central Piedmont Community College with a Master of Arts from New York University. When she is not corralling two teenagers and a doodle named Dexter, she can be found practicing yoga, weightlifting, hiking, journaling and enjoying the arts. Her fiction has been published in Literary Mama, and she is a contributor for Scary Mommy and Project We Forget. Online:

Essay Shakedown: Personal Versus Reported

by Amy Paturel

In almost every personal essay class, I get the question: “What is a reported essay?” And it’s a great question, particularly since publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic are increasingly shying away from personal essays in favor of reported essays. So what’s the difference between the two? Read on!

The Personal
Personal essays delve into a deeply personal experience that may only be relevant to you (i.e., you may be the only person who experienced this particular “thing”). But you tell the story in such a way that anyone can relate to the over-arching message or theme. The key here: You have to have that universal theme or take-home message.

The personal focuses exclusively on your experience with a sort of three-legged stool approach:

  • Scene (sensory details, dialogue, showing)
  • Story (narrative and plot movement, i.e., what’s happening)
  • Reflection (your musings about the experience)

Some examples:

The Reported
With a reported essay, your reader may enthusiastically say, “yes, me, too!” It gives you the opportunity to reflect on your personal experience while recognizing that other people have probably experienced it, too. The way to achieve that end: Statistics. If you can show that INSERT NUMBER OF people also suffer from “you name the experience,” you have the basic scaffolding for a reported essay.

Then, you get to research the who, what, why, when and how, behind the experience and (hopefully) help other people in the process. Here are a few examples:

So what steps do you need to take to craft a pitch for a reported essay?

  • Do some research: Get statistics that prove you’re not alone in the experience.
  • Identify the experts: Search for diverse expert sources who can speak to your experience. Maybe you consult the authors of the studies you uncovered in step 1. Or maybe you search for the top physicians, researchers, and “on-the-ground” experts who can speak to the issue you experienced. The key is to identify the best people to speak to your issue.
  • Craft a pitch for a reported essay. A hint: You should be able to explain what the story is about in two sentences or less.

Now it’s your turn: Craft a pitch for a reported essay. Research the topic or issue you want to explore in a personal essay. Struggling with sibling rivalry in your home? Review the latest psychology research about what sibling rivalry is, why it happens, and how to build a more harmonious home. Want to quit smoking, but can’t seem to commit? Try acupuncture, meditation, or guided imagery, then write a reported essay pitch about what you learned.

Your pitch should include the following:

  • A compelling opening anecdote, similar to what you might craft for a narrative essay.
  • Data, statistics, and/or recent research findings.
  • Three or four experts you would like to interview for the story.

Copyright © 2021 by Amy Paturel. First published in slightly different form at

Learn reported essays from Amy! “Writing and Pitching the Reported Essay” is online via Zoom, two Sundays, July 30 and August 6, 1:00-4:00 p.m. Info

Then and Now

Surrealist Games

Characters as Friends

The Power of “What If”

Journal Notes on the Flight Home

Who Will Tell Your Story?

Love Your Writing, Love Yourself