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Tuesday, October 12, 2021

The Devil Is in the Details by KM Rockwood

Good writing depends on good details.

I know that, and as I’m writing, I try to stay cognizant of details, but it’s a struggle.

When I’m starting a story, I find I often run roughshod over important details, and my work lacks the substance that supports a viable tale.

My writing style tends to be terse. I have always written for my own gratification. While that remains my primary goal, I find a great deal of satisfaction sharing my stories with other people. In order to do that, I need to find a way to convey my ideas to the reader.

I joined a critique group and listened carefully to the participants’ comments. I soon realized that the images that seemed so obvious to me were not nearly so clear to others.

“How old is the protagonist?” “Is this contemporary?” “Is the setting rural or big city?”

But I had a very clear picture in my mind of the protagonist which showed she was in her teens. Shouldn’t it be assumed to be contemporary if no other time frame is introduced? And why didn’t they see the narrow trail rising over the rocky outcropping on the way to the remote old mine? I certainly did.

They don’t, of course, because I haven’t included enough details to convey my image.

I find lengthy descriptions can be tedious to read and even more tedious to write, so I tend to avoid them and try to incorporate telling information in the story.

Margery, my teenage protagonist, can slip out of the high school cafeteria on her way to the adventure. She can drive her missing brother’s pickup to a trailhead and pull on her clothing and boots for a hike. While there, she can check her cell phone for coverage, which anchors the tale in the present or not-too-distant past. And she can raise a cloud of dust when she falls as she catches the untied lace of her hiking boots on the edge of a jagged boulder.

That’s not the story itself, but it provides support and context. I go through the first drafts of my stories, adding what I hope will be relevant details to bring it to life.

Equally important is exercising discrimination on what details to use. They need to be relevant, provide information, and move the story along. Otherwise, we have Margery not finishing her tuna fish sandwich; stuffing the plastic sandwich wrapping and a soiled napkin into the crumpled brown lunch bag; ignoring friend’s greetings on her way to toss it into the open overflowing trash bin as she leaves the cafeteria via the wide swinging doors to the long dark hallway with the restrooms smelling of disinfectant; checking the deserted hallway to make sure she is not observed; remembering the security camera but deciding that by the time anyone views the video, she will have long succeeded or failed at her task; slipping out the heavy side exit door with the panic bar and hoping it does not set off an alarm; dredging the key on the teddy bear keychain to the truck from the pocket of her worn jeans; proceeding across the student parking lot which reflects the brutal sun and smells of hot tar and melting asphalt…

Some of these details might be important, but so much is tedious over-description.

How do you find a balance for details in your writing?


Jim Jackson said...

I don’t include tons of detail, and I don’t enjoy reading pages of it some authors think are appropriate. I try to include just enough to anchor the reader’s imagination and leave the rest for them to fill in.

Annette said...

I was discussing this very topic this weekend at a writers conference. I like to say we aren't writing travel guides. We're writing novels. Description is like spices in cooking. Too much will ruin the dish. The trick is to find just the right amount to add flavor without overdoing it.

E. B. Davis said...

Since I mainly write short stories, the details must be relevant to the plot. If the detail doesn't add to the plot, it is more than superfluous, it can confuse the reader, which detracts from the story. Details must give the reader insight. If they don't, get rid of them.

Jamie Starr said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Susan said...

On the other hand, details are also great places to hide clues.

Marilyn Levinson said...

You raise a very important question: how much detail is necessary to set a scene, describe a character or an action without bogging down the pacing. I believe this is one of the many quandaries each writer has to work out.

KM Rockwood said...

Jim, I have read much of your work, and I think you have a great balance between necessary detail and letting the readers "see with their own eyes."

Annette, very good analogy. The addition of appropriate details goes a long way to spice things up.

E.B, short stories cannot afford to digress. Details have to be woven into the story.

Thank you, Suntrustblog. I will see if I can check that out.

Yes, Susan, the best red herrings fit seamlessly into the story, often in the form of relevant details.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

Kathleen, you nailed it. I've read books that open with five pages of narrative lifted from a guidebook instead of how the main character reacts to her surroundings. I write good food preparation and diner meal scenes, but slash the details to focus on the dialogue.

Kait said...

Great points, Kathleen. The devil is in the details and too much is well, too much (and sometimes I suspect a way to raise the word count. I'm a visual person. I try to see what my character sees and convey only the necessary details to bring the reader into the picture.

KM Rockwood said...

Margaret, I've read some of your food scenes, and you give us just enough detail, esp. via dialogue, to follow well.

Kait, seeing through your character's eyes presents a great way to handle details.