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Want To Tell Better Stories? Find The “Throwaway” Details

Treasure chest on wooden table

Most writers stop asking questions once they have the scaffolding of a story: The Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How.

You can tell a good story by just acquiring this scaffolding. But the risk of stopping at the scaffolding is that you can miss the details that make stories memorable.

Great stories require something extra.

They require finding what I call the “throwaway” details...

Throwaway details are the ones that the person you’re interviewing finds uninteresting and unimportant, but that colorize your story and make it stick in the mind of the reader.

As an interviewer, the best sentence you can hear is, “I’ve never talked about this before.” Or “maybe this detail won’t matter but…” Or “this idea isn’t fully formed yet, but here’s how I’m thinking about it…”

When you hear one of those setups, take careful notes. You’re about to hear a new story.

Years ago, science writer David Quammen was reporting on an Ebola outbreak in Central Africa. The disease had ripped through a village in Gabon and Quammen was there to interview locals. One subject mentioned that around the time of the outbreak, they stumbled upon thirteen dead gorillas in the nearby forest.

This detail might have felt unimportant to the person telling the story, but Quammen recognized a powerful throwaway detail when he heard it. Buried in those three words was the entire story: Ebola hadn’t only ravaged the local human population, but also that of the nearby gorillas. In fact, the outbreak in the village likely started because of the outbreak among gorillas.

This simple detail added so much color to the story that “Thirteen Dead Gorillas” became an early chapter title in Quammen’s popular book Spillover, as well as the title of his Ted Talk.

Odd details stay with the reader. This is why specific questions matter. It’s also why some authors will ask the same question over and over just to find the details so subtle that everyone else might miss. Author Robert Caro is known for repeating, “What did you see?” numerous times to his interview subjects, even to the point of frustrating them. Caro persists because he knows the visual and emotional power that these seemingly unimportant details add to his stories.

Today, nearly all my work starts in an interview. Most people don’t require much prompting to provide the scaffolding of your story. It’s the throwaway details that require work to unearth.

When something you’ve asked elicits a fresh response, write the question down immediately in your notes and circle it. Circle it twice. New details are a storyteller’s best friend.

The easiest way to find throwaway details is to ask specific situational questions instead of abstract ones. Here’s what I mean: Never ask, “How do you prepare for events?” when you can ask, “How did you prepare for your last event?” Don’t ask, “How do you use email?” when you can say, “Tell me about how you used email today.”

Specificity makes a great story. It cuts through the abstract to find reality and fact. Often what one person considers a throwaway detail is exactly the sort of word or phrase that readers remember. Those details place readers in the world of your story.

Once you’ve gained the scaffolding of your story, follow up on the details:

  • Who was in the room with you?

  • What moment sticks with you from that day?

  • What was going on in your life when the event occurred?

  • What did you hear?

  • What did you smell?

  • What did you see?

I have never been a reporter, but most of my writing heroes built their careers in journalism. I love to nerd out about their processes and take questions from these writers anytime they show their hand.

Bandits rob banks. Writers steal interview questions.

I also steal statements that enable my questions to hit with greater impact. For example, many people feel nervous about being interviewed. They associate the experience with job interviews or “gotcha!” media outlets looking to catch them for saying the wrong thing.

The best interviews are when people feel loose and comfortable. I’ve heard Tim Ferriss tell guests that they can delete anything they say during the interview that makes them feel uncomfortable. Ferriss makes it clear to all guests that they have final edit. This allows them to talk without fear because ultimately it’s their call to keep or cut anything from the conversation. Guests feel empowered to open up.

When I notice a client or a client’s client (when writing a case study) is uncomfortable, I tell them something similar. This is the convenient liberty of being a ghostwriter for hire instead of a journalist. I never want to portray the person I’m interviewing in a bad light. So, I tell them that fact almost word for word: “My job is to make you look your best. If you don’t like something you’ve said, just let me know and I’ll exclude it from the published piece.”

Even once they’re comfortable, many interviewees see the interview process as formal. They won’t butt in or add a specific detail unless they’re asked about it. That’s why I always include a catch-all question at the end of every interview: “Is there anything I haven’t asked about that you think is worth mentioning or including in this story?”

Showing up with great questions won’t guarantee that you find throwaway details. For one thing, it’s a treasure hunt. If treasure was easy to find, no one would care about it.

Plus, interview mastery requires practice. Great interviewers must deploy many soft skills that are hard to appreciate until you’re the one asking the questions. How comfortable is the subject you’re interviewing? Opening up requires trust. Was the question asked at the right time? A sound question, in the wrong context, can be a dud. Did you give the listener time to think? Let the silence do the work.

Good writing is found in the details. A novelist can make up the scents and emotions and sights that take place in their story. Nonfiction writers and journalists must find these details through hard digging and good questions. No one gives up their throwaway details easily.

It takes a sharp storyteller even to notice them.

1 Comment

Finding the 'throwaway' details is the key to telling captivating stories! They add depth and authenticity, drawing readers or listeners deeper into the narrative. Thanks for highlighting this valuable storytelling technique! eBook writing services


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