The Devil is in the Details

by limebirdster

A friend recently asked me to read through her novel and let her know what I thought of it. Or, I should say, she asked me a little while ago but I only got round to it recently! It was a children’s book and not a teenage children’s book, but a little children’s book. And I found that one of my main comments back was the same comment that my sister gave me when reading through my novel for the first time. Too much unnecessary detail.

In my case it was the habit of trying to describe every single aspect of a room, down to window placement and furniture arrangement, so that the reader would be able to picture the room exactly as I was imagining it in my own head. There are a couple of problems with doing this as my sister pointed out to me, the first being that the plot gets caught up in sudden paragraphs of extra description every time the character enters a new room. The second is that the reader has their own imagination and it really doesn’t matter if they want the second window on the right to be four inches lower than you do, that’s their decision to make!

With my friend it was a different kind of detail. I’m sure she won’t mind me sharing with you that it was sentences like “picked up the receiver of the white and brass phone that her parents had given her for her sixteenth birthday” and “no longer confused as to the destination of their trip.” I think that in writing for adults you can get away with a few extra sentences thrown in here and there, but children’s books are so short that everything needs to be said as succinctly as possible. The first example can easily be shortened to simply “picked up the phone” and the second to “no longer confused” without really losing anything.

Both my friend and I were caught out with wanting the reader to see our worlds as we did. I didn’t want anyone to be confused as to where someone had run off to when they left the room through a door which hadn’t been mentioned previously and my friend’s main character’s phone was an important gift, it was special to her, even though the reader didn’t necessarily need to know that. Because we knew that something was important, or would come into play later, we were trying to make sure that it was mentioned earlier.

It was difficult to get out of the habit of over-describing things, I’d gotten quite good at it by the time it was pointed out to me! But then I saw the programme Charlie Brooker’s ‘Screenwipe’, in which the aforementioned Charlie Brooker interviewed a load of screenwriters, and something that one of them said resonated with me so much that I now have it stuck on my wall beside my desk, and that was; “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds“.

If something’s going to be important later, then it can be important later. And the reader doesn’t need to know everything about a character when reading about them that you need to know to write about them!

As writer’s our heads, notebooks and documents are full of little details that we know about our stories and our characters and it can be difficult not to write about them all, because we created them, we love them equally. But, sometimes, they just aren’t needed in the story and leaving them in just clogs up the narrative instead of helping it along.

30 Comments to “The Devil is in the Details”

  1. Reblogged this on Alexandra Smith Writers Blog and commented:
    Excellent information and it is so easy to do in stories, especially when you are new to it.

  2. Great advice! I wrote a similar post recently, “Cut the Fat,” on this very subject. Less is more in writing.
    Blessings – Maxi

  3. Great post! A common trap I fall into. Only when told do you realise and need to trim the fat.

  4. I have issues with this, as well. Personally, I think a first draft is fine for crafting all of those details we have in our heads (writing the first draft for ourselves, as it were), but a revision should definitely start being more direct. That doesn’t mean the details have to go away, of course, because that may be part of our unique voice. But you’re right that not everything needs to be described in excruciating detail.

    While the same basic credo of less is more holds true for both, screenwriting is a bit different from novel writing. In a screenplay (or play, or comic), the writer has the benefit of a visual accompaniment, which is as (if not more) important as anything that comes out of a character’s mouth. It’s a subtle difference, but an important one to remember. A written story should have some description…it just doesn’t necessarily need that four-inch window placement, as you say. 🙂

    • I feel the need to say that I’ve never actually gone so far as to include window placement in my descriptions!
      But I agree with what you say about the first draft. I can’t remember where I heard this but someone has definately written a rule that says the second draft is the first draft take away ten percent, it’s fine to include the details in the first draft as long as you remember to take them out!

      • I’ve heard that 10-15% rule about the first draft, too, and – generally – I think it’s solid advice.

        I do think some in-depth description is good, though. Admittedly, I like description, for visualization, but also because sometimes it’s the best way to get a glimpse into a character’s head. (My protagonist, for example, describes the girl he’s flirting with in rather particular detail, because the moment is meant to portray him as an observant lech.)

        I suppose the key is to have an editor who understands which description is helping your story, and which parts are just slowing it down unnecessarily. This is one reason why I agree with folks who say you need to put a manuscript (short story, novel, poem, whatever it is) away for a while before you go in to do an edit: to see it with fresher eyes.

  5. Fab post 🙂 I’m the same! Argh!!!

  6. In today’s publishing market, it’s probably better to err on the side of conciseness. Some genres still allow greater lengths (+100,000 words) or require more description (fantasy/sci-fi set on other worlds). But if you look at mysteries published twenty years ago and compare word counts to one today, I bet you’ll find the newer book is shorter.

    Of course, there will always be readers who want more details and those who want fewer. We can’t please them all. 🙂

    • That’s true, we can’t please them all! But you’re right about word counts, I think it’s also easier to sumbit something slightly shorter and add to it later than it is to try and pull stuff out after you think it’s finished!

  7. “I’d rather be confused for ten minutes than bored for five seconds“ is a great quote because I know it to be true, thanks…it may go by my desk as well.

  8. Very good point. This is why I think it’s important to write character profiles that include their backgrounds, hopes, dreams, etc. We need to get it all out of our systems. The reader may need to know some of those things, but we don’t need to state them all explicitly. A lot of the details can be picked up on from the action itself. We need to remember not to treat readers like idiots, and allow them to draw their own conclusions.

    • Getting it our of our systems is a good way to put it! I think the information we all have in our heads about something we create could probably fill an entire book by itself!

  9. You put your finger on this — details are the clue!

  10. Knowing your audience and reading lots of books in the genre you are writing in helps a great deal here. I know that there are these supposed Golden Rules of writing, but, you’re right, they don’t apply to all genres and they don’t apply to all writers or all stories.

    Having many eyes read your work is a great idea. In the end, the variety of opinions can only help to improve the final product–if only because it made you think carefully about your work and each decision to keep what you originally had or change it was conscious.

    • That’s the problem with writing rules, they all depend on what you’re writing and who you’re writing for! I like a variety of opinions too, it gets annoying when you only have one opinion and you don’t like it!

  11. I’m writing a short story at the moment, and hacking words out to make the limit is becoming a heartbreaking challenge. I will get there but it is difficult to let go of your favourite line.


    • It’s always difficult to cut out lines, maybe try saving it for another story Jim, it might find a home somewhere else!

  12. Great post! One of the benefits of reading a story rather than watching a film is that we can use our imagination; in a film we see exactly what everything looks like. Too much detail in a book stifles our imagination and that’s when the book can get dull. I also feel slightly insulted if I read too much descriptive detail in a book, it’s as if the author didn’t trust me to understand what they were trying to convey.

  13. I think sometimes there is a fine line between just enough detail and way too much. You have to be REALLY good to over-describe things and not lose the story – Stephen King comes to mind. That man could probably spend 500 pages describing the color of a bedspread and keep the story interesting.

  14. I totally agree with this, I cut my children’s work as far down to the bone as I can. I have read some books where I have forgotten what is going on in the plot because of the description. I was reading a book for young teens a couple of years ago and the masses of description ruined what could have been a good story. At the point where the character dropped something on the floor and the writer then described everything the character saw when he bent to pick it up, I shut the book forever. Great post.

  15. Hi Laura,

    I have friends who ask me to read their work and they write like that! Writer’s courses often tell students to ‘show, don’t tell’, but too many details makes for boring reading. The novel ends up like War an Peace and not much of a story. The reader is interested in the people and so they need to be described, but even then not in great detail. You have to allow you reader to imagine things for themselves. I once told someone to remove the name of a church, because each reader would then imagine one that they had seen. Giving them a name conjures up an image, just saying church is vague enough to fire their imagination.

    Interesting post. 🙂

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