Details are wonderful. They enliven your story, create characters that seem uncannily real, and generally make your fictional world go ’round. You can never have too many details … right?
Inasmuch as a story may be ruined by poor or inadequate description, it may also get bogged down with trivial or irrelevant verbiage. In the initial writing stages, you want to just hammer out all those details knowing that you will hack, slash, and burn away the excess later, but when the time comes to cull your flock of fluffy darlings, you’ll need to consider the following points.
Description for the sake of description begets tedium.
Humans only have so much brainpower. We regularly ignore all kinds of details, and this ability to sort through data allows us to solve problems, make decisions, and generally get through the day without being sucked down by the psychological undertow that results from endless waves of information. (Yes, this can also result in biased and otherwise fallacious reasoning, but that’s another issue.)
The point is, if your readers are forced to attend to seemingly endless trivia, they may begin to feel confused or frustrated and lose interest.
Use descriptions to pace your plot and focus the reader’s attention.
Even with crucial plot points, descriptive overkill is still possible. To make sure you’re using in-depth descriptions at the right time, decide first whether it’s time to slow the story down or hasten plot development.
When you’re building up to an important event, it may be time to slow down and take pains to describe the situation and explain what your characters are thinking, feeling, and doing about it. Employ longer, more complex sentences to produce a slower cadence.
When you need to pick up the pace, employ adjectives and adverbs with maximum “punch” and use fewer of them. Try using more short sentence structures, being mindful that you don’t make the text choppy and jarring unless that’s the effect you really want to achieve. Even so, use the effect sparingly.
You also need to consider whether or not misdirection is important at a given juncture. If there is a mystery to be solved or if you simply want to add a stunning plot twist, you can use your descriptions to focus on some intriguing red herring even as you subtly introduce the evidence that would lead the reader to the correct conclusion.
Juggling too many details increases the probability of introducing contradictions.
Before you wad up those spitballs with my name on them, hear me out.
It’s a universal truth that the more stuff there is, the more stuff there is to go wrong. It applies to electronics, cars, physical theories, and yes, stories. I know you want to create a complex and delicately woven tale, but once again focus on what is critical and devise a way to keep all those bits and bobs in order.
More to the point, if you create a synopsis or plot diagram, check it carefully for any internal conflicts. It’s one thing to intentionally include a merely apparent contradiction that will eventually be explained away, but something else altogether to introduce a genuine, unresolved logical contradiction that will chew up your story’s credibility. I strongly suggest you recruit someone with a sharp, methodical mind to review your work and exorcise these literary Lucifers.
It’s not your job to micromanage the reader’s experience.
Naturally, you want to share your rich inner world with others, but you shouldn’t concern yourself with making your readers picture everything exactly as you do.
It’s one thing to write a non-fiction book where, for example, you are recounting historical events. In that case, you really do need to make sure that important details are described carefully so that your account is accurate. But accuracy only counts in fiction when you are using real places, people, and events to anchor your story. You don’t want to misrepresent anyone or anything in your writing, but force-feeding your readers every last detail may result in the psychological equivalent of spit-up.
Once you’ve laid your pen to rest, the world you have created is now the reader’s to imagine, and they will mentally recreate in their own peculiar ways the brilliant imagery that you have bestowed upon them. Your work here is done. Put your feet up for a few minutes and relax because it’s time to let your readers sweat for a while.
And if you’ve done your job well, your work will be sufficiently complex to inspire multiple interpretations that may be subtly different or radically divergent. This is the beauty of good writing. Roll with it.
Bedevilled by Details — Part I: Keeping It Straight