Wednesday, June 18, 2014

How Much Detail is Too Much?

"Beware of the man who won't be bothered with details."
-William Feather

One of the challenges of writing is providing the reader with an appropriate level of detail. You want your audience to be able to visualize the scene, but excessive numbers of adjectives can dilute the story.

Part of the appeal of books is the ability for the reader to stretch their imagination. They take the details and descriptions that the writer provides, and turn them into images in their mind. Why do so many film adaptations fail to meet the expectations of a book's fans? Because the film is the vision of a small group of people, and may have little resemblance to what other readers picture. They have to have enough details to begin forming their image, but excessive amounts can destroy that pleasure.

Too many unnecessary details can hurt the narrative as well. When the author is busy describing the scene, there is no action taking place. It is like looking at a still photograph instead of a moving scene.

"Purple prose" is another description for overwrought text that is so flowery that it distracts the reader from the story. When someone sits down to read your story, you want them to be completely engaged in what is happening. When your words draw attention to themselves instead of to the action, it can break that concentration. The reader may even lose their ability to suspend their disbelief.

In Stephen King's book "On Writing," he describes the process of cutting scenes that you love as being able to "kill your darlings." Sometimes the passages that you love the most and are beautifully written are not ones which advance the story. As hard as you may find it to be objective, try to step back on your story and see if the details really add to what you are trying to portray. If it doesn't move the story forward, take the plunge and cut it.

I suggest rereading several of your favorite books, paying specific attention to how the writer uses details. Most successful writers have a talent for weaving details into the action so that they are unobtrusive. Study the books you admire, and determine what you like and dislike.

So much of developing your writing skills depends on practice. Keep reading, keep writing, and have fun!

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