kaughiephreke asked: I always second guess myself when I’m writing. I never know if I am getting too in-depth in my descriptions so I try to cut out the fat, but then my writing seems too short. I have heard people complaining about authors who describe too much and don’t move the story along fast enough, so I get very concerned with how much detail is a fair amount, but I just don’t know.
Well, second-guessing yourself and being a writer go together like Emily Dickinson and the em-dash. You’re in good company. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have an interesting question, so let’s get right to it.
First, let’s define detail.
Detail (n): Facts revealed by the speaker to support a piece of poetry or prose.
The question of how much detail to use, as you’ll find, is largely a matter of personal taste and style. Some people prefer their pages to be dripping with imagery and detail, and some people would prefer your story to read like a play, stark and simple. The question is not necessarily how much to use, but how to use it effectively. Detail is most often for one (or more) of five ends: pacing, characterization, setting development, foreshadowing, and symbolism. Let’s look at these one by one.
First on the docket is pacing.
Pacing (n): The act of controlling the speed at which an author tells the story; how quickly the story moves from one element to the next.
So, how do details relate to pacing?
- The more details you have, the slower you move. This one is pretty straightforward. If you want your story to rocket ahead, you might breeze by the details or only use very few (we cover this in our article on writing action, Action with a Side of Zombies). If you want to slow things down for the sake of building tension or even creating a feeling of relaxation and safety, you might want to fill your scene with extra details. The more there is to read through, the more time your reader has to spend on a scene.
- Use discretion. This is important in all aspects of detail, but it applies most to pacing. If you want to slow things down, go for it, but be aware of readers that might begin to feel bogged down by all of your delightful prose (unless you’re Charles Dickens and you’re being paid by installment). By the same token, if you want your piece to zip along and you end up using no detail, readers might have no image in which to mentally ground your action or dialogue, leaving them lost. Be aware of the reader’s needs.
- More questions about pacing? Luckily, we have a towel for just this purpose. Don’t leave without it.
Now let’s move on to characterization.
Characterization (n): the process by which the writer reveals the personality of a character.
Use of detail is one of the most effective ways to characterize.
- Show, don’t tell. This (in)famous piece of writing advice is especially applicable to this topic. Using detail can characterize much more strongly and vividly than simply listing information about your character. For example:
Jimmy is careless.
Here we have three details that give you a firm image of Jimmy’s carelessness without stating it outright. They were probably more fun to read than the first example, anyway.
Unaware of the toothpaste on his chin, Jimmy dug under piles of dirty clothes in search of his missing lunch money.
- Be faithful to your narrator. If you’re writing in the first person, how your character narrates characterizes her. What she mentions or doesn’t mention, or thinks about another character, or tells stories about will give your readers a vivid understanding of your narrator. These things are all details. Keep them consistent (or inconsistent, if your character calls for it), because they are part of your character’s voice, which is often a first-person narrator’s primary medium of characterization. Don’t believe me? I refer you to Holden Caulfield’s unmade phone calls in The Catcher in the Rye.
What’s next? How about setting?
Setting (n): The place and time at which a play, novel, or film is represented as happening.
Setting is what people tend to think of when they think of detail, sometimes for obvious reasons.
- Describe where you are. Odds are, your reader has never been to Finland (this is assuming you are writing your story for a non-Finnish audience). What does it look like? Where are you? A city? The mountains? The plains? Does Finland even have plains? These are questions you need to answer. When you characters walk down the street, what sort of people do they run into? Do they know the townspeople well, or are they all strangers in a city? What are the sounds, the smells? What kind of food is for sale? Is the sidewalk dirty? These questions (plus a bazillion others) are what you need to ask yourself when writing about your setting.
- Describe when you are. Time is just as important as location. Is your story taking place in the nineties? If so, your characters better not be listening to Mumford & Sons. Be aware of culture and the societal mentality in the time in which you’re writing. If you didn’t live through it, this means doing some research. If you did live through it, check your facts anyway. Small details (like a portable cassette player) can immediately signify a given time period, and placing something anachronistically is an easy mistake to avoid.
- Don’t stop. Don’t think that just because you’ve done a little bit of setting description in the beginning that you’re done. You’re not done describing your setting until your story is over. Your character skins her knee on the street’s rough cobblestones, or feels the spray of the sea against his face, or can’t sleep because of the honking of taxis under her window. These details keep your setting alive.
But the fun doesn’t stop there! On to foreshadowing!
Foreshadowing (n): Indistinctly suggesting elements that will appear later in the story.
- Subtlety is key. The thing about foreshadowing is that the reader usually doesn’t realize what’s going on. A detail that foreshadows should be enough to cock an eyebrow, but shouldn’t call too much attention to itself that it completely ruins the surprise of what’s going to happen. Foreshadowing is the kind of element that rewards a second reading. Let’s look at three ways to foreshadow one event. The main character in this story will, at a later point in time, take the gun from the wall and shoot its owner, Max.
Martha looks around the room, considering the hunting lodge’s decorations. She examines the crisscrossed wooden snowshoes, the taxidermized bear’s head, the hunting rifle, and the brick fireplace.
Here, the rifle completely blends in with the rest of the setting details and isn’t very noteworthy.
Martha looks around the room, considering the hunting lodge’s decorations. She is immediately drawn to the hunting rifle, and, taking a quick look around, removes it from the wall. She hoists it into the crook of her shoulder, looking through the scope with one eye shut.
Now the entire scene is about Martha using the gun, and it becomes really obvious that this is going to reappear in a significant way.
Martha looks around the room, glad to have been left alone for just a minute. Bored, she inspects the walls, looking past some wooden snowshoes and an empty fireplace until her eyes fell on a rifle mounted on the wall. She begins to examine the gun when Max calls from the other room.
Now the scene is about Martha’s apparent dislike for Max, but leaves the reader guessing about how the gun might appear in a more significant way.
In these three examples, the placement of the detail is key to the success of the foreshadowing.
- Want more? For more on foreshadowing, check out our article titled
Foreshadowing and the Red Herring: Cluing Your Readers In.
Alright, the last one. We’re on to symbolism.
Symbolism (n): Something that represents something else, whether it be an idea, a person, or an event. This could be something inside or outside the world of the story.
You’re dying to know. How does symbolism relate to detail? Luckily, answers lie ahead.
TL;DR: Did you want the quick and dirty answer? This is where you should start reading.
- Detail is all about style and taste. That was said at the very beginning of the post, and it remains true. You will never please every reader, but there is a pretty healthy window for how much detail you can use without being skimpy or overloading. Keep and develop your own style, but be aware that some people might be partial to more or less detail than you. If you think your story needs it, adjust accordingly.
- Use your detail effectively. The problem you might be having with your detail is that you have so much of it, but not much of it is exceptionally substantive. One very powerful detail can often do more than a bunch of small ones. If you look at a detail and say, “what are you doing here?” and can’t give a quality answer, you might want to cut it. Being able to get the most out of your detail will make your scenes more vivid with fewer words. Of course, not every detail will be heart-stoppingly brilliant, but strong ones will get the job done.
- Be specific. A concrete detail that immediately evokes a certain vision is going to be more effective than a vague detail. Are your characters sitting down to watch a movie? There’s a big difference between them watching Schindler’s List as opposed to Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The more precise your details are, the more real your scene will be, and the more your reader will learn about the situation.
- Have no fear. You do you. If you find yourself reading your work and saying, “Wow, my detail is really strong but I’m still not sure if I’m using too much or too little of it,” trust yourself. There is always room for an edit or changing some things around, but if you’re second-guessing and don’t know what a better working of the scene would entail, trust yourself that you’ve got it. Remember, there are no wrong answers.