Before I get too far into tonight’s topic, I want to talk a little bit about my stream on Tuesday night. [If you watch it from that link, it gets started at around the 4:30 mark]. I was going to guest on Michael’s regular Tuesday night stream, but he had to call it off. Since I was going him and talk about tips for having a successful NaNoWriMo, I thought I’d go ahead and stream it myself. And so I did!
The reason I streamed it when I did was because November is coming up on us very fast, and if I waited much longer to talk about NaNoWriMo, I’d be too late. The whole reason I’m writing all these posts in October is to help me have a successful NaNoWriMo, and along the way, maybe offer up some tools for other people to help them with their writing journey.
The point of this post to answer the question, “How much detail is too much detail when I’m trying to write a scene?” And here I’ve gone and started the whole thing with way more detail than is required to make that point. Does that mean the beginning of this post is bad writing, because it is too much detail? Or does that make it good writing, as it is an example of what it means to have too much detail?
The truth is, the answer depends on what your writing, and what era it is. If someone were to write like Tolkien today, they would likely be criticized for describing too much. Heavy descriptions provide immersion and richness to your world and to your story at the expense of pacing. These days, the common advice is to hook your reader from the beginning, and keep them on the edge of their seat, until it’s time to breathe.
When I was talking about audio books yesterday, I talked about how the reader is an active participant, filling in details that the writer never mentioned. It’s why the book will almost always be better than the movie. That partly answers the question about how much detail you should include in your stories. If you don’t give the reader room to participate, you’ve gone too far.
I have a tendency to not put in enough detail. In Synthetic Dreams, I definitely under-describe what the synthetic people look like. In Spin City, I don’t think I go quite far enough to let the reader know what it looks like to live in a spinning city on The Moon. And in The Repossessed Ghost, I choose not to give much of a description of the main character.
Something I have to watch for and correct in my revisions is the tendency to over-describe certain, specific details I want the reader to understand. I don’t trust myself to describe it well enough on the first pass, so I wind up going over it again in subsequent sentences, which is redundant and not as much fun for the reader.
The right amount of the detail is just enough to get the story to the reader, plus a little bit more for flavor. You want to convey the idea. The feel of a place, the impression of characters, and details that allow the reader to establish an emotional connection. At the same time, it’s important to paint with a lighter brush, so that the reader doesn’t grow bored or get distracted by details that aren’t necessarily that important.
Different genres make different demands on what should be thoroughly detailed, and what should be left to the imagination. If you’re writing an epic fantasy, you have more room to be more lavish with the detail. If you’re writing something tighter and lighter, your details need to be specific, light, and delivered exactly when they’re needed.
Short stories need to be extremely economical in the amount of details put on the page. Look at flash fiction, and how many details you can get away with there. All stories must function, and for them to be successful, the reader must receive the idea that the writer is sending. Too sparse and the reader is confused or frustrated. Too much, and they’re overwhelmed, bored, or distracted.
It all comes down to practice and experimentation. If you have a critique group or critique partner, you can get feedback from them and look for the times when they’re bored. A lot of times, boredom indicates places where you’ve slipped and left the exposition on, and the page is covered with dry information that is unattached to the action, or devoid of any emotional connection. If it isn’t exposition, it might be that you’ve gone too far with your descriptions.