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!