Sunday, March 21, 2021

Truth is in the details

 The truth is in the details. - Stephen King

The Year of Billy Miller by Kevin Henkes (Greenwillow, 2013) is the kind of book that pulls you into the story with the truth of its details. 

Each detail is so precise and reveals the truth of each character in a way that helps illuminate our understanding of where the character is, emotionally, in each moment.

The plot is almost nonexistent: Billy is entering second grade, bumps his head in a fall before the story starts, and worries he won't be smart enough for second grade. 

And through a series of small incidents he gains the insight into himself to realize he is smart. 

But the thin plot hardly matters because the details are so utterly perfect and contribute to the magic of this story, which relies on Henkes' ability to capture the sensibility of a second grader's world--both emotionally and physically--and to depict that world so beautifully on the page.

Henkes gives us details like these when he describes Billy's first encounter with his second grade teacher Ms. Silver:

Ms. Silver had chopsticks in her hair. That was the first thing Billy noticed about her. Her wavy blond hair was coiled into a bun and held in place with two shiny red chopsticks. Billy's parents like to eat with chopsticks sometimes, but he had never seen chopsticks on someone's head before.

And details like these when Billy notices the changing seasons (and the changing emotions that his father displays):

Things were changing. The light was different. The trees throughout the neighborhood were turning. Every day it seemed the leaves were more colorful, as if someone had taken a paintbrush to them during the night. There was a cool edge in the air and, lately, an edge to Papa, too.

And like these details after Billy shares an idea with his father that might help Papa with his work:

Papa leaned toward Billy and pecked the top of his head. He rose from the bed. As he walked away, his big adult frame darkened the doorway. And then he was gone. But Billy could hear him humming. The sound was low and rumbly. Simple and tuneful. Not quite happy. But definitely not crabby.

How do such details work? 

They work, I suspect, for a number of reasons:

First, Henkes manages to convey a convincing picture of a second grader's way of thinking about the world. He reveals Billy's thought process, using words that are so exact and precise that the words themselves feel almost like visible threads of Billy's thoughts that appear on the page. 

Second, the details offer a glimpse into how Billy views the world. They tell us not only what he sees and thinks, but what he feels. The light was different, changing. Leaves were more colorful. The days were cooler. And then Henkes offers us an emotional link to Billy and his sense that Papa is changing too, being crabby when he's ordinarily good humored. 

Third, Henkes has a gift for finding the right word and knowing how to place it in the right place. He doesn't say Papa kissed the top of Billy's head. He says he pecked Billy's head. He doesn't say his frame filled the doorway, but rather, with much more precision and attention to details (aware of how the scene might appear to Billy), he writes his big adult frame darkened the doorway. 

Henkes uses details to convey elements of surprise, as well, and to alert us to Billy's discoveries of new ways of seeing the world. For example, Henkes shows us how Billy views the chopsticks in his teacher's hair not just as tools with which to eat, and not just as any chopsticks but as two shiny red chopsticks. And he shows us not just Ms. Silver's hair but her wavy blond hair, coiled into a bun and held in place with two shiny red chopsticks.

Thanks to Henkes' careful selection of details, he's able to give the reader an insider's view of Billy's perspective and thought-process. Such details accurately depict what Billy sees, thinks, and feels. 

And by conveying Billy's responses to events in the story on three different levels--showing us what he sees, thinks, and feels--Henkes offers each reader the opportunity to feel as if he or she is discovering the truth with Billy on every page.

If you write with the same kind of close and careful attention to detail as Henkes, and strive to understand, as Stephen King reminds us, that the truth is in the details, then you will be able to draw your reader into your story, too.

For information about Kevin Henkes and his work, visit his website:

And for more information about using details in your writing, visit: