Lip stuck in the details

On March 4, 2013 Jasmine Smith wrote, …how detailed is TOO detailed? I mean, I know there are some events that are just not included in stories. Like getting your lip stuck in your braces. Would you tell about that happening to your character? Or does it just not matter?

Along the same lines in the latest post, Bug wrote, When I write, I try to write in as many details as I can. This produces one of three things: a) too much detail; b) not enough detail; c) just right, but this doesn’t happen much. Then again, I’ve had people tell me there is no such thing as too much detail. What do you guys think about this? How do I avoid a) and b)?

And Michelle Dyck replied, Try to have your characters interact with many of the details, in order to mix the descriptions with action. (For example, one character may run her hand along the ugly, floral wallpaper, another may walk across the fuzzy carpet, and a third may sneeze at the dust on the furniture.) I guess balancing the right amount of detail, though, comes with practice. You have to decide what is necessary to draw the reader into the setting and what can be cut out without making the story suffer. You’d be surprised, however, how few details are necessary to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. They can fill in a lot. On the other hand, you don’t want too few details, otherwise the readers might feel they’re floating in a featureless grey cloud.

I agree completely with Michelle Dyck, and I love the idea of integrating detail and action. Action as it occurs in real life is loaded with detail. Right this minute, for example, I’m on the train to New York City, typing on my laptop, in a window seat on the sunny side of the train because they tend to crank the air conditioning up too high and I want the sun to mediate the cold. It’s early in the trip, so the seat next to me is empty. And so on. The conductor just strode past my seat. Oh, there he goes again. I could fill in with myriad other details: the scenery outside my window, the condition of the train, what I’m wearing. It will all get boring very quickly, because there’s no tension. The train isn’t about to derail, I hope. None of these travel details will get us anywhere (oops, pun!).

But in fiction, action and its attendant details are the building blocks of plot. Let’s take Jasmine Smith’s detail of our MC’s lip getting stuck in his braces. (British blog readers: Please post to say if this is also the British term for orthodontia wires on the teeth. If not, what do you say?) I think it’s a great detail! Suppose Martin is about to give a speech at his youth group, a speech he’s practiced for a month, a speech that’s meant to quiet unrest in his village. He’s so badly stuck on his teeth that he can’t speak, and his lips start bleeding uncontrollably. He has to go to the hospital. In his place, his friend Wanda leaps onto the stage to speak in his place, but she’s much less persuasive than he is. In fact, she offends her audience and riots break out.

Wow! A lot comes out of that one detail, when we combine it with the action of trying to give a speech.

Let’s go back and fill in with more details, because so far we have a quick summary. Martin starts bleeding and soaks his tissue immediately. A young woman on his panel gives him her handkerchief to stanch the bleeding. He’s surprised that she has an actual cloth handkerchief, which is delicate and flimsy and not much use. As he raises it to his lip he sees a blue rose embroidered in the corner, the symbol of the secret society for the liberation of mutated foxes. He sees the same symbol tattooed on her impossibly slender wrist, and her eyes, an intense blue-black, bore into his when he looks up.

Lots of detail here, and they all draw us into the gathering plot.

What would be too much detail? Suppose we have Martin look down and see another rose on her ankle. Well, we already know about the wrist and the handkerchief, so the ankle may be overload – unless ankle skin must be kept unadorned by order of the Tyrant.

So detail becomes overload when it piles on what we already know – even if it’s clever, even if we have a great time writing it. We can enjoy ourselves and lay it on thick, but then we need to snip the excess out in revision.

Unless we’re writing humor and the point is the overabundance of everything and it’s really funny and the reader will laugh, or some readers will laugh. Then the more the merrier.

Let’s go back to Michelle Dyck’s suggestions: one character may run her hand along the ugly, floral wallpaper, another may walk across the fuzzy carpet, and a third may sneeze at the dust on the furniture. Our details don’t have to set off major plot events. They can work to set the scene. In this one, we can imagine that three young women are looking at a house they may rent together for their junior year in college. When we bring in dialogue and the thoughts of the POV character we begin to enter the story. June, our MC, hears the sneeze and worries that April may not be able to tolerate Mary’s cat. Someone else can be dismayed that the place hasn’t been kept up. And so on.

The point is that detail, when it’s working well, folds into everything else: character, action, plot. If our detail does that, we’ve got Bug’s option c) every time.

Here are a bunch of prompts:

• Write the story of Martin and his bloody lip. Use as many of my details as you like.

• List three other consequences of a caught lip that could give rise to a story. Pick one and write.

• Pick another of your stuck lip plot possibilities. Make the consequences include one or more of these: the downfall of a civilization, a flowering of the arts, the invention of flying.

• Sleeping Beauty pricks her finger a week after she got her braces. Write the story.

• In a story, make my train derail. Use some of the details that I provided and bring in lots of your own.

• Write the story of the three young woman and the house.

• Use Michelle Dyck’s details in a different story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Wow, I'm honored that my suggestion got into your post, Mrs. Levin. Thanks! (And it's even in the prompts… yay!)
    Lots of good ideas in here. The stuck lip bleeding all over the place really sounds painful. I've had braces, but that never happened to me. Thank goodness.
    Anyway, I have a question, one that I probably should've thought of back when you had the guest do a post on copyrights. When posting on one's own blog, is the material automatically copyrighted? What I mean to say is, does the material belong to the author? I technically have a blog (which I'm not going to use until my book is published), and I'm just wondering how safe it is to post random stories or poetry or other original work that's never been shown to the world. I wouldn't want anyone 'stealing' my stuff. 'Regular' posts (such as updates on my writing or events in my life) don't matter so much, but actual literature certainly does.

    • I don't know about copyright, but if you post a story on your blog, most editors will count that as using up your First Rights (the chance to publish a story first), which is what most publishers want to buy, so you may have a hard time selling your story.

    • That makes sense. I'm not planning on posting whole novels, but I've considered doing shorter works. If that means that publishers probably won't buy them, then I'll just make sure I don't post anything that I want to publish one day. Thanks!

  2. My suggestion for this problem is just getting a bare bones draft, with important details so that you don't forget what you were envisioning. Then you can add really good "I can totally see this" detailing. I can definately think of at least one example where there is too much detail and i know I'm about to get blasted for this by other readers, but Tolkien uses, in my opinion, WAY too much detail. The only book of his I've managed to get through is The Hobbit, but I have attempted Fellowship of the Rings many many times only to be stymied by the his superfluous details. As a matter of fact, I've gotten through more pages of Les Miserables than I have of Fellowship of the Ring. So in conclusion to this way too long comment, getting trapped in the details can wait for another draft and too many details can keep people from enjoying not only the work that you are reading, but your other publications as well. That last bit is especially true when writing a series.

  3. One of my pet peeves in description is when they describe the most important thing last, i.e., The creature has three fingers on each hand, its eyelashes are pale and sparse, its skin is orange with pale blue spots, and oh, by the way, it has sharp teeth and it's going to eat me.

  4. Can anyone help me? I need to find a nickname for the name Saranya. It has to sound masculine, because she's pretending to be a boy, and I've already decided that the name she gives is some form of her name, or another. It can be the letters scramble, or backwards, or part of the name with letters added, or something else that sounds similar or something. but I can't figure it out yet, so any help will be much appreciated.

    • The alternative to having no nick-name that will work is finding another name. I want on that would describe her a little bit, so if anyone can find a name that means "fierce" or "Battle" or "Cat" or "Hidden" or "mystery" or "silent" or maybe "Fortress" or "protector", that would help too. They don't have to seem nick-namable, just mean any of those afore said things. To help a little, I give you a look into her character. She isn't exactly an MC, but is seen through the eyes of the MC, and has a few chapters of her own. She was kidnapped from her home at the age of about thirteen, and then escaped, but never returned home, for safety reasons. Being a girl though, she felt insecure living on the streets, so she made herself a disguise (To make her hair appear shorter, she folded it in half, and braided it, then tarred it, after cutting long bangs to hide her face. to change her figure she made mesh shields that she strapped over her chest and stomach. She also made a type of frame that would broaden her shoulders.) and stopped talking (To make sure she never spoke, she put a stone in her mouth, to remind herself.) This was to keep her from forgetting to lower her voice. Before she'd been captured, her father had taught her a type of fighting known as "Cat" in which you mirror the way an animal fights. It was a type of fighting that could let you win against a greater opponent. I'm not sure exactly how to describe Cat, but it is sort-of like karate, only smoother, quicker and more brutal. Then she gets kidnapped again, this time by someone else Later in the book she swears to protect two people who will die if they do not pass a certain test, set by their kidnapper. This is probably really confusing, but it's the best way I can explain it. If you need any more of an explanation, I'd be happy to provide one, because I still can't find her a good name.

    • You could call her Sar. I think that sounds pretty cool.

      Sometimes, when I am having trouble finding an appropriate name, I look for words that would describe my person, and then I see what they are in different languages. Like when I was writing a sleeping beauty story, I wanted to name her something that meant 'lights' or 'snow' or something, because of 'Aurora'…and anyway, I named her 'Lys', and now I feel like I'm just rambling. hope you get the idea.

      Even though you will probably choose NONE of these, but just to give you an idea, (and even though you probably got what I meant, I need something to do):
      Cat in different languages
      Finnish = kissa
      Greek = gata (transliterated)
      Estonian = kass
      Lithuanian = kate
      Romanian = pisica
      Latin = cattus (also spelled catus) or gattus
      And, like Mrs. Levine said in one of her posts, you can change the word to a name, like 'melancholy' to 'Mellie"…
      Sorry! This probably didn't help much!

    • It does help actually, all comments help, they get me thinking in different ways from what I was thinking already. "Kass" Will do nicely or Saranya's Nick-name/boys name. In the land my book is set in (Daerienowan) all the people are fairly light skinned and haired. Saranya is dark skinned/haired/eyed, which is because she comes from a country not too far off the border of Daerienowan, but her people were invaders, thus the dark coloring. Also, I have all the people of Daerienowan having Gaelic names (I decided every country would have a different language that their names and expressions come from), so having her have an Estonian name will be good and give her an exotic air, or whatever, though, the people reading my book (I'm crossing my fingers that someday someone WILL read one of my books! By the way, it's really hard to type while crossing one's fingers) probably won't know the difference from Gaelic and Estonian (Side note: My uncle and Aunt live in Estonia, I can get some good ideas from them! *smiles*)

    • That would have worked. I was all set to do that before, then I realized I'd heard that name before. I looked it up, and, what do you know, it was a girls name. It was a good idea though, thanks!

  5. Wow. I feel honored to have my comment mentioned on your blog. *Sigh while I enjoy a moment of bliss* Thank you, Mrs. Levine! That helps a lot! I never thought a lip stuck in your braces could help move a story along…does it take you a while to think of these prompts? They are always so amazing! Anyway, thank you (and Michelle Dyck) for answering my question!

  6. Ok, I have another question. (Sorry!) I'll be writing a book (soon) that is in the same series as my Twelve Dancing Princesses. It will be about Saphira's sister Tashmarine and will be based on Beauty and the Beast. Basic plot is this: The girls' father promises Rheta's hand in marriage to a king of a distant land, but Rheta is secretly engaged. Tashmarine is extremely protective, especially of Rheta, who is her favorite sister. Anways. She rebukes her dad for going against his promises to their mothers, (He had promised never to marry any of his girls off unless they wanted to marry the man) but Rheta is rather easily intimidated, and the marriage would be best for the kingdom, and perhaps prevent a war (Rheta is also sensitive, and hates death passionately.) When Dad doesn't budge, as a last alternative, Tashmarine volunteers to marry the guy instead. She's also ROYALLY angry (No pun intended). She sails across the ocean, meets her intended, (Sort of, wait a moment and I'll explain it) and isn't impressed. Later she hears a rumor that the king (Her fiancé) is horribly deformed, or worse, possibly he is a beast of sorts. She is horrified to see him at the wedding ceremony. The reason: He is wearing a mask that covers his entire face, and he hides his right arm in his coat! They get married, and She is sent to live in a distant wing of the palace and rarely sees him. He does all his ruling through a personal guard/friend/noble and rarely see's anyone, not even his wife! The only times she sees him are at meals, where he eats behind a screen, and in his room, where the only thing she sees of him is his left hand, which he reaches through his bed-curtains. He is pretty nice to her, and loads her with gifts, (He even gives her a tame panther) but that isn't enough to make her fall in love. Anyhow, later on he gives her permission to go visit her sisters, 'cause she's lonely, so she sails back across the ocean and spends maybe three months in her home-country, when she receives news that her husband is ill. She immediately sails to her new home and finds him lying in the garden, (apparently he had snuck away from his guards and such, for some reason, haven't figured that out yet, but that won't be hard) And she takes care of him etc. etc. and then their in love. Problem, dunno how to make it work. I think having her be fiercely protective is a good idea, which means after she finds out he is deformed (He was attacked by a bear once. Really, REALLY long story, but I assure you, there's a reason for that) that would cause her compassion, and when people talk badly about him, saying he's a beast, that would raise her hackles and she'd get really protective (I mean he's her HUSBAND) but I'm not sure that's enough. Or maybe it is. Can anyone help me?

    • I like the idea of her being protective. I mean, that could really work. You can say that Tashmarine is protective of anyone close to her, and I mean, come on. Her husband has to be close to her. You can have them spending more time together, rather than just at the meals. You can have the beast 'accidently' meet her at a certain place she might be at a certain time of day. You can also have them go on walks together.

      Maybe he showers her with compliments. Maybe they share the same interest.

      You can also have the beast do something REALLY special for her, like a candle-lit dinner, magical gifts- if that goes with your story- or something she really cares about. I saw a movie once, in which the girl's husband gives her clues in their house to find presents for her b-day. E.g Go where we keep the matches or something that is more mysterious and in rhymes. When she goes around to these places, she might find a gown and matching jewelery, or something special to her.

      I hope I helped!!! Good luck with your story!


      Now why can't I have good ideas like this?

      Anyway, I think that at first she should be pretty ticked off about the whole thing. I mean, she sounds pretty independant so she wouldn't like being married to him. But the main thing that happens in every Beast story is how after they interact together ALOT she sees how sweet he really is. I like the gift idea. You could also have him be really self conscious about his deformity. And then she is like whoa, why does this bother you? I think you're fine the way you are!! Or you something like that. Is it just me or are all 'Belles' very feisty and like that. Nothing wrong with it just sayin'.
      Quick Question though… Will he become non-deformed? That is another staple of Beast stories, but I understand if you don't want to be cliche.

      Maybe he isn't really deformed but just thinks he is!!!!! Wouldn't that be a twist!!!

    • If she is independant, she might want to prove that she can marry an ugly deformed man, and still be happy, and this may lead to her actually falling in love with him.

    • Thanks everyone! You really helped. Aritha (I'm abbreviating you name, hope you don't mind) yes, they do occasionally run into each other, especially in the garden (He loves roses, hee hee.) and he has his servants spy on her, sort of, to find out what she wants or needs, so he can give it to her. Also, he gives her a rose every day. (I thought this up to fit with the rose theme of BATB.) Bibliophile, I really liked your idea, the beast, or prince, actually is scarred, but you just gave me a wonderful idea for a short story, mind if I use it? Tashmarine isn't exactly spunky, just really protective, (I modeled her somewhat after myself, the eldest of six kids, I take care of my siblings, [And I help in a Sunday school class] so it's almost like I'm a mom), though she is also a little bit take-chargish with a quick temper, and capable, practical mind. The "Beast" was orribly scarred, neary killed, and his mother (A shallow woman who cared mostly ffor three things, wealth, rank and looks) wanted him to die, because of it, and his fiancé (Before Tashmarine) was pretty much the same, and left him for a handsomer man. He got really sensitive to his looks. I mean seriously, having your mother wish your death because of his face can really scar a guy (no pun intended). Thanks again!!!

    • Yeah, you can so use it. Sounds like the greek myth of Hera and Hephaestus with Aphrodite as well. Define scar. I mean there are the 'I have like a nick of a scar' and then there are the 'THERE IS A GIANT SCAR STRETCHING FROM THE CORNER OF MY EYE TO THE CORNER OF MY MOUTH' scars. I'm guessing it is more along the latter lines but want to be sure.

    • Definitely the latter. A bear attacked him and tore a lot of flesh from his face and mauled his arm. The scars on his face (Mostly on his left cheek) are deep red valleys, where the skin didn't quite fill in. (My brother has a scare like this, on his arm, only smaller. It's a little pink crater, where the skin never filled in all the way. Same with the "Beast" only his were longer and deeper. And on his face.) Thanks for letting me use your idea!

    • Whoa…I'm the oldest of six, too! That's almost creepy…Elisa, I am already in LOVE with your BATB story! When you publish it, I will soooo read it!!! I also really like how you combined the two fairytales, too! Jessica Day George does something similar in her Princess Trilogy, but I honestly like your characters better 🙂

    • Thanks everyone!!! You really made my day! Actually, I'm writing about all twelve of the girls (To use up my humongous stash of ideas conveniently) and Tashmarine is story number eight (Or seven, I'm thinking of combining Calsie and Lexan's stories). Wow, what's with all the big families? 🙂 (Or moderately large ones, since I've been writing about TWELVE sisters, six just doesn't seem so big!)

  7. I was wondering if anyone had some really GREAT books to do a book report on? I've read so many books but I can't lay a finger on any one of them. So far in mind, I've got THE LIFE OF PI, SCHOOLED, and THE GIRL WHO COULD FLY.

    I can't do Hunger Games, Divergent, Percy Jackson, Kane Chronicles, Heroes of Olympus, or City of Bones, because they have all been taken. I want to present a novel that is interesting, easy to follow, and appropriate for crowds. If anyone has any suggestions, PLEASE PLEASE comment. Thanks!!!

    • The False Prince, by Jennifer A Nielson. The Princess Academy, The Goose Girl or River Secrets, all by Shannon Hale. (River Secrets is m all-time favorite book in the world, it is AWESOME!!!!) The Decoy Princess, by Dawn cook. Ella Enchanted, or Fairest, By Mrs. Levine. Princess of the Midnight Ball, Princess of Glass or Dragon Slippers, by Jessica Day George. Anne of Green Gables, BY L.M. Montgomery. I could probably think up more if I wasn't in such a restricted time frame. These are all REALLY good books, well written and everything. Hope I helped!!

    • Some of my favorites are Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, The Secret Garden by Frances H. Burnett, Banner in the Sky by James Ullman, The 13th princess by Diane Zahler, and, of course, Harry Potter. Have fun picking!

  8. Mrs. Levine, in Writing Magic, you said that in a story, you can't begin using subjects before you have introduced them. The example you gave was of a boy delivering a message on a foreign planet. He gets attacked by wulffs, and that's interesting, but the author hasn't mentioned wulffs until then. This is the problem I have. I have a complicated story, and it contains a lot of legends. There are three different trials that my character has to pass through, and each one requires a legend to explain it since it is so complex. How do I slip all of that information in before the trials come up while still being subtle?

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