Well, really, they’re not very much alike at all—even though I’d love to see Bluefish as a movie with songs by Leonard Cohen. However, both the middle-grade novel by Wisconsin author Pat Schmatz and the 1971 movie by Robert Altman make excellent use of the “telling detail.”
For those of you who don’t belong to a writing critique group, the “telling detail” is the incident or detail that, while small in itself, gives readers volumes of insight into a character.
In McCabe & Mrs. Miller when the two main characters first meet in a rough frontier town, Mrs. Miller sits down and eats some fried eggs.
Sounds pretty mundane, right? But on camera, Mrs. Miller (as played by Julie Christie) carries her hunger in every fiber of her body. She eats much as a wolf might eat after weeks of poor kills. In the dim lamplight, she guards her plate while McCabe wordlessly watches her devour every last scrap.
Fast-forward to the Midwest in the early 2000s. Travis is new at school. He faces the usual dilemma of no one to sit with at lunch and decides to go for the corner, facing the wall. Not long into his solitary tray-full, Travis is joined by Vida (“My public calls me Velveeta.”).
Schmatz presents the telling details this way:
She tore open a packet of ketchup and drew a smiley face on her burger. Then she opened a mustard and added yellow eyebrows and a mustache.
‘So what’s your story?’ she asked.
By the time we get to dessert, we know Velveeta:
"You going to eat that cookie?" She reached across to Travis’s tray and took his cookie and held it up in the air, a hostage.
Many pages later, when we see Velveeta ignoring her government-sponsored free & reduced lunch, we know she’s hit rock-bottom. Travis, a true friend, gives her sadness the room it needs:
[He] followed, careful not to crowd her. She threw her whole lunch in the trash. Her pizza lay upside down on top of the other garbage.
That’s a telling detail—and in this case, it was just enough to make me cry.