First: Happy belated Thanksgiving to everyone who celebrates that holiday (and to those who don't anyway). Mighty Reader and I had turkey, potatoes, yams, stuffing, pies and a lot of hooch. It was swell. I'll spare you any anecdotes and private jokes, and just say I hope you all had a wondrous Thursday, no matter what you did.
Today I'd like to talk about details. Playwright Anton Chekhov famously once said, "If a gun is loaded in Act One, it must be fired by Act Three." What he means by this is that if you make a detail seem significant at the time, then you owe it to your reader to make good on that significance. There should be some sort of payoff for drawing the reader's attention to a detail or an action. This theory of payoff from significance is known as "Chekhov's Gun."
Chekhov's Gun provides a good general rule about writing, one that forces us to pay attention to the level of detail we put into our stories. I'd like you to keep the idea of Chekhov's Gun in mind for a minute while I talk about something else.
When we are writing our first drafts--or when I am, at any rate--I tend to put in all sorts of details about people and places and then cut most of them out in revisions later. Some of the details are odd things that I have no idea why I'm writing them in, but at the time they seem to be the right details. For example, say that you're having two characters talk to each other, and for no reason you can think of, you have one of these characters mention his limp. Why's he have a limp? Who knows; it just works there so you leave it. You might also have another character wearing a foolish hat that nobody can stand but he won't be take off. Or you have a woman who is playing with a ring on the small finger of her right hand. These are little things you've stuck in to round out your characters, but mention maybe only once and then forget about as you finish the first draft. When you go back through to revise, you can't recall why these details are in the story and so you cut them and move on.
What I'd like to suggest is that some of these details, seemingly meaningless, did signify something to you when you were in the white-hot passion of drafting. At some level, they were the right details, and you should consider keeping them. But don't just leave them how they are. Do something with them. Think of these details as potential examples of Chekhov's Gun. Before you cut them out, ask youself what they could possibly mean in the larger context of the story. Do they say something about your characters that can be expanded, that will deepen the reader's connection to the characters?
For example, the guy with the limp. Maybe he limps as a result of some event about which he's ashamed. Whenever he gets to know someone new, they'll inevitably ask about the limp. How honestly he answers them can be a measure of how much he trusts the other person. You could even be clever and have an inverse relationship: the more honestly he answers about his limp, the less he cares for the other person and, maybe, the more likely he is to do them some sort of harm.
The guy with the hat could've gotten the hat from someone special to him that he's trying to reunite with. Or, to be more clever, he refuses to doff his cap to anyone because he sees himself as the equal or even the better of anyone he meets, and at some point he will, dramatically, take off his hat for some character.
The woman with the ring? Maybe it's her mother's wedding ring. Maybe it's a ring someone gave her when she was little. Maybe it's nothing of the sort. Maybe it's a ring she stole and can't remove and her playing with it is a sign of her constant worry that she'll be caught out in her theft.
Not all of the little details you spontaneously throw in will lead to bigger story elements, but some of them probably can. I scatter these things into my first drafts and I know at the time that they'll probaby be cut but I also know that they might develop into pointers to larger ideas in the rest of the story. One possible way to visualize this is that, with the mention of (for example) the walking stick the antagonist carries in Chapter Two, you are lighting a fuse that will lead to some kind of explosion in a later chapter. The explosion needn't be big. And it might not even be a sort of "A leads to B" chain of events. It could just be that your "insignificant" details can be made significant if you ask yourself not just what they mean where you've first written them, but what else they might mean. Sometimes, they mean nothing at all, and that's why you've got your delete key. But sometimes, they can lead you farther and deeper into your characters, and you should follow those leads.