A Writer's Objectives

Pay Attention to Detail

I recently started reading a book. No surprise there, right? Here’s a big surprise: I stopped reading it after four chapters. The plot was sound, the characters were great and just about everything about it was interesting. The problem? Details. Every new scene had so many details crammed in that it was difficult to recall what was going on. Two pages describing a single building later, and I couldn’t remember why the characters were even at the house in the first place. But, at least I had a very very very clear image of the house in my head, right?

Wrong.

There’s an invisible line drawn in the sand when it comes to details. A lot of authors either cross it (a lot) or don’t even reach the line. There are very few authors capable of standing on the line; how does one stand on something they can’t see, anyway? I’m hoping this entry will help some of you to at least get a little closer to the line.

Because I’m tired of huge blocks of text, which means I am sure you are as well, I’ll do this in bullet form. If you like it better than the past entries I’ve done, I’ll try to stick with bullet form rather than assault you with long blocks of text.

Let’s talk about too much detail, first:

  • If you find yourself describing every outfit your character wears in so much detail that it takes several paragraphs to describe… you’ve got too much detail. Try only describing really important outfits (ball gowns, fancy dress clothes, etc). The readers only need a brief idea of what the character wears day-to-day, not paragraphs of detail about it.
  • Describing a new place can be exciting. Sometimes, however, the reader only wants to know the basics. If your character is breaking into a house, don’t spend two pages describing the house so completely there isn’t a chance you’ve missed a single detail. Touch on what the house is made of, what the windows look like and what the doors look like; that’s what your character will be most concerned about anyway.
  • If you have a character (or a group of characters) that travel fairly often, they will move to various types of environment; towns, forests, mountains, cities, etc. Don’t spend all your time describing the change in scenery. A nice view of what the environment is like spread over the entire time the characters are in the area is better than describing it all in exact detail in a matter of a few pages. Let your character think about the large oak trees that seem to rule the forest, or the cobblestone road they saw that was completely destroyed, but don’t focus only on those details. What else is going on?

Describing too much isn’t always the problem…

  • Opposite of describing your character’s clothes too much, is describing them to little. The readers want to have an idea of what type of style exists in your story; don’t neglect the clothing completely for fear of too much detail! The readers may know that the character wouldn’t be traveling naked, but without some idea of what their clothes are like, that might be where their minds go!
  • It’s tricky knowing how much detail to put in. Just because I said don’t spend forever describing a new place, doesn’t mean you should neglect detail completely. Look at: “The house was brick” versus “The rust and mud colored bricks were cool against her skin as she pressed against the wall of the house.” The second sentence says the same thing as the first, but gives the reader a little more detail.
  • When entering a new place, make sure there are enough details that the reader knows what it looks like. If your character has entered into a large meadow, make that clear. Is the meadow dead grass and skeletal trees? Or is it lush green with a few trees scattered here and there. Don’t spend forever describing it, but at least let the readers know what the character is seeing.

I feel like my bullets were pointless, though they did help keep me from rambling. Anywho! Hopefully this has been helpful to anyone who has difficulty with detail. Too much can be boring and make a great story seem drawn out, while too little detail could cause your readers to picture you characters or landscape completely naked and void of detail. It’s a difficult line to balance on, that invisible line, but getting close to it is better than nothing.

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Comments on: "Pay Attention to Detail" (8)

  1. I’m always working on finding that right level of detail, too! I tend toward the spare side, but in my latest story I’ve been working on describing clothes a bit more. It’s amazing how much you get out of a character when she’s wearing dirty yoga pants or a white angora sweater.

    • Exactly. While clothing may not seem important, if it isn’t at least mentioned here and there, the readers will have to make up their own clothing or (always the fun option) just picture the character naked. I’m reading a book series right now where the author makes note of the clothing, but it is minor enough that it doesn’t take away from the story itself. I have a hard time with detail, myself, which is another reason I wrote this entry. Now if only I could take my own advice!

      • It’s always an interesting question isn’t it, of when and how to include descriptions of characters clothing. I personally think it reads really clunky when, after a character’s name is mentioned, there’s a paragraph of ‘X was wearing a….’ and then lists their outfit.

        On the subject of too much detail, I was reading a book once about the Hiroshima bombing (it was fiction) but gave up when the author started describing the plane taking off in terms of how many pounds of thrust per sqaure in each engine was producing. It took the plane about three pages to take off. If he carried on at the that rate, I assume the plane would have only got a hundred feet off the ground by the end of the 400 page book!

      • That was my problem with the book I mentioned at that start of the entry; the author went into deep detail about a house the characters had arrived it. There were two pages describing said house and by the time I finished reading the description, I had to flip back to remind myself why they were there in the first place. That’s bad writing mojo right there.

  2. “The devil, as they say…”
    d:
    Detail. Is the bane of my writing existence.
    I get so caught up in what’s happening that I often give zero detail as to how things look around my characters. So pretty much my characters ARE running around naked in a blank white void! Hahah

    I’ve learned to embrace that I will have little-to-no detail in my first run-through, though. I let the words and action flow out so that I can get a feel of the scene, and then later on in the rewrite, I work in the details.

    Thank you for the tips; I’m IN that rewriting stage now, so… gotta find creative ways to let people know my characters wear clothes… e–e
    xD

    • Making sure characters aren’t naked and there isn’t a giant void (unless your aiming for a void that is, but that’s another entry entirely :p ) is important! But I, too, go back and add the details or remove the details in my editing process. By editing process I mean one of the times I have to read over what I have written so I can remember where I was going with the damn story….

  3. Excellent post! The amount of detail to include in a story is definitely a fine line. I’ve been thwapped by editors for not including enough detail and by readers for including too much–on the same story.

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