What turns words on a page into a vivid scene? What magic do some authors perform that convinces readers a story is real and characters are people they might actually run into on the street?
Details do the trick!
Does that seem too simple an answer? Common sense or not, it's one element of fiction that is so often overlooked that editors and agents declare it's one of the most frequent reasons they turn down manuscripts. Yet this is such an easy problem for writers to fix, if they are just aware of it.
The trouble begins when the author—you, me, anyone regardless of experience—envisions their story and characters. To us, as creators, the people leap from our imagination with fully developed personalities. Our settings glow in our minds, complete with flora, fauna, and furniture! We "see" each scene as complete even as we polish our final draft, working on dialogue, plot, pacing, character development and consistency.
But what does the reader see? Only what we put on the page. Therefore, it's important to weave in enough physical details for the reader to work with in her own imagination, allowing her to come up with a fictional world that is, if not exactly the same as the one we envision when we wrote the scene, at least similar and as vivid in its own way. Stories that take place in a muddy void aren't convincing. Stories that give us only generic details—flowers instead of iris, roses, and lilacs; buildings instead of chic condos, Georgian mansions, or mud-daub huts—leave the reader unconvinced that this world on the page actually exists.
Some writers shy away from using the most obvious details—locations that are available to anyone who walks through a specific city or town. Is it fair game to set a scene in the Four Seasons restaurant in Manhattan, to fly on U.S. Air, to allow your characters to stroll down Connecticut Avenue in D.C. or work for the World Bank? Absolutely. In fact, a sense of recognition plays a very strong role in making your story come to life. A good general rule is: as long as you're not saying anything libelous about a business or place, you're safe.
Take the time to play with details in your story, adding just enough to bring your scenes and characters fully to life. Coloring your story brings it from tonal grays to vibrant color…and may make the difference between a near miss and an offer on your next book. Happy Writing! --Kathryn