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I have often come across stories where the author has described a particular scene or action of a character in minute details.

e.g. If a character has to open a door, the description is about how the character feels about going to the door, then the character going to the door, putting the key in the lock, turning the knob, pushing the door and finally stepping inside the room.

I understand intense detailing is necessary if it adds to the story (such as the above in a suspense or a thriller).

My question is more about the general details (which are described at great length by the author). In many cases, it appears to me that the author is insulting my level of intelligence (i.e. don't treat readers as dumb or bore them to death).

Question: How does one balance the need for details versus telling a good story?

Note: I am asking the above question in the context of a short story (where words are premium) but it can easily apply to a novella or novel. In the latter cases, it often occurs to me that the author is padding words to increase the length of the story!

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7 Answers 7

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I think the general rule should be, Will the reader care?

I heard a speech once by an American who was a reporter in Nazi Germany during World War 2. When I saw the advertisement for his lecture I thought that sounded like it might be very interesting: someone who was there, in the midst of the enemy camp, while it all was happening.

He started off talking about the first time he saw Hitler speak. He said how there were a number of Western reporters in the hall. They had been placed off to the side of the podium. Well, not really beside the podium, but they weren't in front of the podium like most of the audience. They were off at an angle. Maybe a 45 degree angle from the podium. ...

He went on to describe the angle and positioning of the reporters for ten or fifteen minutes. I'm sure I am not alone in saying, I didn't care. I wanted to hear what he saw of Nazi Germany that maybe I wouldn't find in an ordinary history book, not the arrangement of seats in a lecture hall. But the man was just a maze of details. If these details had led somewhere, if they had supported some important point, that would be different. But they didn't.

At the other extreme, I've read books where the descriptions were too sparse and the story was sterile. If you just say, "George entered the room. It was dark. He felt scared" ... well that's boring. But if you say, "The room was pitch black. George carefully felt his way through the darkness. He felt that irrational fear of the dark that humans have experienced since the dawn of recorded history ... but not so irrational now. For somewhere in this room it might be lurking ..." etc., maybe those couple of sentences I threw together aren't all that effective but my point is, if you describe the darkness and his fear you can draw the reader in and help them to see the scene and share his feelings. Too short a description and the reader just says, "Oh, too bad for him. Whatever."

Too sparse a description can also make the scene difficult to understand. As you're writing the story you normally have a picture of the scene in your mind. Perhaps in your mental picture Sally is standing by the window and Allen is standing by the door. Is this something you should mention? If what happens in the scene is mostly that Sally and Allen talk, maybe not. But if a crucial element of the scene is that Sally sees something out the window that Allen does not, or that Allen tries to jump out the window but Sally is able to block him, then such a detail may help the reader to picture the scene the same way you do and understand it.

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A couple of pointers I've picked up (apologies if one of them is pulled from another post I wrote):

  • 3-5 good descriptors are way better than 10 mediocre ones. If you're describing an employee breakroom, for instance, you might want to mention the stale glow of the flourescent lights, the constant smell of microwaved burrito, and the mismatched carpeting. And that's it. Does it have cupboards as well? Don't worry, your audience will draw them in themselves. Or they'll draw in their own accoutrements based on what they think a breakroom looks like.

    For what it's worth, this is reflected in Stephen King's book On Writing as well as correspondence Chekhov sent to another writer.

  • Lingering on any one item for a long period of time tells the audience as much about the person doing the describing as the description itself. You don't even have to call a woman "pretty", for instance, if your main character (via first person or third person limited) notices her hair or her eyes. You don't even need to be particularly poetic in this case, although if you describe them in unflattering terms the audience will think the POV notices her because she's unattractive.

    The same applies to an object in the room. I mean, if you spend 8 paragraphs describing a wall lamp, the audience won't necessarily think your character is in love with the wall lamp, but they will get the strong idea that this is a very, very important wall lamp. If that lamp then has no bearing on the story at all, the audience will feel cheated.

  • Invoke more senses than sight. Our primary sense is sight, of course, but it's far from our only sense and it's my experience that your readers will experience much more verisimilitude if you engage sound and (especially) taste (which often invokes some very basic, animalistic responses from humans), smell (likewise), and feel.

  • Dropping descriptive bits in later on in a scene than the beginning is a good thing to try, but it means something as well. Primarily it means that for the first time in the scene your character noticed some aspect of the room or a character. Sometimes this works well; for instance, if the light catches your POV character's hair in a certain way, this would work really well. I don't know that it just works to say "she ran her hand through her soft auburn hair" though.

  • Try different things out in your drafts. If you're writing something that's of any length greater than a short story, you're going to probably have to go back and rewrite a few times just for clarity and consistency. For that matter, if you're writing a short story you want to eventually have published, you're expected to re-write it into near-perfection. You may as well try something out (hey, would it kill the scene if I mention that the whole factory smells of rotting fish?) and then leave it for yourself to go back in and figure out later. It's my experience that my judgment of something right after I've written it can be flawed. Sometimes I'll think something is iffy but I'll leave it in and in a later go-around I find that it actually worked really well. Other times... well, that's what rewriting is for.

  • There are no real wrong answers here. There's just what works for you and what doesn't. If you intend for your work to be published to a larger audience I would entreat you to be very critical in your rewrites, but ultimately it's your judgment. I am sure that I've read people break any if not all of the "rules" I noted above and write effectively in spite of that (or perhaps because they were breaking the tropes). Just try stuff, see what fits, and eventually you'll have a good feel for this sort of thing.

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Please check 10 Tactics in Minimalist Writing. It's a small text and worth reading.

Unfortunately there's no easy answer for you. It's related to writing style and weight of a scene even if, most of the time, you should avoid unnecessary information. "Unnecessary" is dubious word that may change a lot depending on who sees the same information.

There will be cases when you will want to use a lot of details to create tension, suspense, or just to make it clear that something or somebody is important. That's ok, but if giving too much details becomes a constant, you will move the reader's focus from the plot to the details. That's more or less what I felt when I read The Name of the Rosa.

Resuming, it's not necessary to give a lot of details to tell a good story, but how much detail should be given is delimited by author's expertize and style, along with specific demands of scenes and characters.


10 Tactics in Minimalist Writing resume

  1. Avoid wordy sentences
  2. Refrain from long words
  3. Spend your time on quality writing
  4. Balance science and art
  5. Eliminate background noise
  6. Slash and burn the fluff
  7. Use sensory words
  8. Practice with minimal structure
  9. Edit diligently
  10. Develop confidence in minimalist writing:
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Could you summarize some of the first link in case it goes dead? –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 9 '13 at 10:03
    
Is that what you wanted? –  Psicofrenia Aug 9 '13 at 10:15
    
yes, perfect, thank you. This simply ensures that future readers will get the gist of your answer even if the website vanishes. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 9 '13 at 11:59

Treat details like Chekhov's Gun. They should only be there if they serve a purpose.

If the purpose is to create atmosphere, explain the setting to the reader for the first time, place a macguffin on a shelf (JK Rowling did this in Order of the Phoenix when she casually listed a large ugly locket as one of the things in an enchanted cabinet, and it turned out to be a freakin' Horcrux in Deathly Hallows), or describe a character, then go right ahead.

But if you're pouring on detail to prove that you did background research, or because you have a door fetish, then save the excess to your slush file to enjoy on your own time.

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I'll always +1 a Harry Potter reference. Any time at all, all you gotta do is call, and I'llll be there, plus 1'n you! –  Aerovistae Aug 10 '13 at 2:12
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@Aerovistae Ain't that good to know? :) –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 10 '13 at 13:15

The trick is being able to tell enough of the details so that the reader can get an accurate picture of the scene, with few enough details so that they don't get bogged down, and not so little that they don't know what's going on.

It's a delicate balance. I find that treating it like "Bullet Time" in the Matrix helps me. If it's something that would normally be over in the blink of an eye, but I want to make it a big thing, I put it into Bullet Time in my mind's eye, and write it like that.

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I guess much of this is down to style, but I like to drop descriptions in among the action to spread them out and stop them bogging down the reader.

Joanna had red hair, shinning like copper in the sun. It was thick and full and...

Joanna ran a hand through her thick copper hair, cocking an eyebrow at me.


Like I said, a matter of individual style, but I feel that imbedding the description in the action keeps the story flowing. It's said that when you stop to describe something the whole story stops to wait for you, this way the story can flow unabated.

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"When you stop to describe something the whole story stops to wait for you." Wow, that's a great thought. –  Lauren Ipsum Aug 9 '13 at 11:59

In a novel you should just write what comes naturally to you. Me, I like to read what others may consider excessive description, and that's the way that I naturally write. This becomes very challenging for short stories though; it is very difficult not to compromise on either plot or description, since description often does not materially advance the plot. For me this occurs when trying to write to a word limit of less than about 7K words, however most short story publishers are looking for more around the 4-5K range which is even tougher.

As a result, many short stories focus on the evolution of a character. By using description to unveil aspects of the character it also has the effect of advancing the plot. I guess what I'm saying is, not all stories can be told as short stories (depending on the length of "short") and forcing them usually results in a compromise. For the right story though, both description and plot can work together without either one suffering.

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