Posted by Alex Vernon on

Why every story needs a ‘gleaming detail’

7th March 2018 – I’m dedicating this post to my dear friend Adam Jacques, a brilliant writer and all-round legend (and definitely one of my life’s gleaming details).

My job involves lots of phone interviews, mostly with people sharing their stories about how they’ve been helped by a charity. Occasionally I come off the phone feeling a bit flat – I’ve got all the answers I need, but something’s missing. Other times I hang up the phone feeling moved, energised, excited about listening back to the interview and writing up the story. Why? I’ve unearthed a ‘gleaming detail’ – and it’s going to make the story sparkle. 

Image from The Do Book Co.

I first read about the gleaming detail in  ‘Do Story – how to tell your story so the world listens’ by the brilliantly named Bobette Buster. And I’ve been looking for gleaming details in stories, films and even songs ever since.

Here’s Bobette on the gleaming detail:

“To make a story unforgettable, you need to find that one image that connects with the audience, that ‘Aha!’ moment. This singular image, well positioned, can elevate a story from good… to great. We call this the ‘gleaming detail’ – a term originally derived from that great nation of storytellers, the Irish – for the element that makes a story stand out.”

For me, the gleaming detail is a vivid, emotive mental snapshot that stays with me long after I’ve hung up the phone or walked out of the cinema. Speaking of which, here’s a gleaming detail I found in a film recently…

A bendy straw in a glass of juice

If you see the film Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, look out for the orange juice scene. A badly beaten-up hospital patient (I don’t want to give anything away, so let’s call him Arthur) is unaware that his new room-mate is his attacker (Biff). A separate incident has left Biff covered in bandages and unrecognisable. Arthur offers Biff a glass of orange juice. But then Biff confesses his identity. Arthur is shocked and angry. But moments later he gently places a glass of juice on Biff’s bedside table and even carefully positions the bendy straw so that it’s easier for the incapacitated Biff to reach for.

Arthur’s delicate positioning of the straw is my gleaming detail – the bit I gushed about to my family as we left the cinema. In a brutal film with several high-drama set pieces, it’s a tiny but loaded moment that represents two of the story’s themes: compassion and forgiveness.

Here are a couple of gleaming details from my work:

A missing boy’s bedtime story

Last year I interviewed Peter for the charity Missing People. In September 1988, Peter’s 15-year-old son Lee went missing after going out to watch a football match. Devastatingly, Lee has never been found.

When I asked Peter about his favourite memories of Lee, he described Lee ‘listening attentively’ while he read him Noddy books at bedtime. There was my gleaming detail – a little boy, warm and safe in bed, his father cosied up next to him reading aloud from a picture book. It’s a scene played out in millions of kids’ bedrooms around the world every night. But what happened to Lee and Peter later makes this ordinary scene extraordinary – and heartbreakingly poignant. (And speaking of poignant, here’s Peter performing with the Missing People Choir on Britain’s Got Talent.)

“Oh, I’ve been out at my groups!”

A while ago I interviewed 12 lovely Victim Support volunteers about helping victims of crime. Unsurprisingly, the same themes kept coming up – the importance of active listening and being non-judgemental, how volunteering was an eye-opener. All good, valid stuff, but I was waiting for what Bobette describes as that ‘Aha!’ moment. And then Sarah provided it.

Sarah told me about Jean, an elderly victim of burglary. Jean was very lonely so Sarah suggested she get involved with charities like Age UK. As Jean was too nervous to call the charities herself, they phoned them together. That was a turning point: Jean started going to events like tea parties and bingo and soon Sarah struggled to get hold of her. “I’d call Jean and the phone would ring and ring,” said Sarah. “When I’d finally get hold of her she’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve been out at my groups!’ She told me, ‘Thank you so much Sarah – it’s all down to you.’ That really brought a tear to my eye.” It bought one to mine, too.

Now I’m working extra hard to find gleaming details in all my interviews. Sometimes just a gentle nudge for elaboration on an earlier answer is all it takes to draw out something dazzling. It’s the difference between hanging up the phone feeling a bit indifferent and hanging up the phone feeling utterly inspired – and raring to write the story.

3 thoughts on “Why every story needs a ‘gleaming detail’

  1. Thank you Alex. This is a new idea to me and I do remember the bendy straw moment. I can see how in the kind of developmental training I do these moments could also be significant! I’ll introduce a gleaming detail and see if in group work it can also hold that power. I love the notion that it’s an Irish thing!

  2. Ah, thanks for the positive feedback Isobel. I’ll be interested to hear how gleaming details go down in your training!

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