Avoid extraneous details in your fiction

Part of achieving balance in your descriptions is managing the details. While on the one hand it’s possible to give the reader sensory deprivation by not providing enough details, on the other hand you can give the reader sensory overload by including too many details, especially if they are the wrong kind of details. Relevant details are necessary. Irrelevant details are distracting.

Details are relevant and add to the reader experience.

Unless you’re writing literary fiction, don’t throw in lots of poetic description for its own sake. Especially if what you are describing is the landscape. That worked for nineteenth century readers who didn’t have a thousand TV channels, video games, and smartphone apps clamoring for their attention. As Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy wrote in Writing Fiction for Dummies, “Don’t write for those readers. Every one of those readers is now dead, and they aren’t going to buy your book.”

The key, as with so much else in fiction, is character. When Sherlock Holmes walks on a scene, he will notice every blade of grass and stray scent. Normal people, however, will notice what’s important to them. Notice that the descriptions in Doyle’s stories don’t include everything. They include only what Watson notices, because he, not Holmes, is the viewpoint character.

Compass Magnifier Vintage Notepad Gold Pen Coffee Cup Wood Table

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Put yourself in the place of your viewpoint character and consider his frame of mind and his background. If he’s the kind of person who’s keenly aware of his surroundings, he might notice the book missing from the shelf or the furniture that’s moved slightly. But if he’s preoccupied or habitually absent-minded, he won’t.

Consider the different kinds of things different people notice. One of my great-grandmothers was the sort of person who would forget to eat. She couldn’t cook, and she found food to be sort of a bother. So if she came to your house for dinner and you had a batch of broccoli cooking in the steamer, she’d likely ignore it and comment on the flowers or the decor instead. That was her personality. If I were writing a novel from her point of view, I’d want to remember that and focus on the things she would notice.

Of course, once she is actually eating dinner, then the details of what’s being served become relevant. I can’t avoid describing the smell of broccoli when it’s sitting there on the viewpoint character’s plate. At that point, the broccoli becomes relevant. It adds to the reader experience only insofar as it puts the reader in the scene.

If the purpose of the scene is that someone has poisoned the broccoli and everyone will wind up in the emergency room except the poisoner himself and one kid who didn’t eat any of it, then the broccoli becomes very important and you can spend some time on it. But if the purpose of the scene is to discuss grandma’s advance medical directive, then the broccoli is incidental and warrants no further attention.

Descriptions should be authentic to the viewpoint character. For example, a fashion-conscious woman might describe another woman’s bag as a Louis Vuitton and her shoes as Christian Louboutin. But most of us would just think bag and shoes, maybe noting their color.

The kinds of details your viewpoint characters notice say a lot about them. So choose a few relevant details wisely, rather than pouring into the scene every single thing you can conceive of.

There is a special pitfall here when we’re describing something we know well from real life. If we base the house in our story on grandma’s house, there’s a temptation to dig out the old photos and describe the place down to the smallest tchotchke. If you find this is what you have done in your manuscript, edit that description down to the essential details that are relevant to the character and the story.

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Details embed the reader in your storyworld

One of the most difficult aspects of novel-writing is finding the right balance between providing enough description to create an image of the storyworld in your reader’s imagination, and providing so much that the story is bogged down and ceases to move forward.

© kitzcorner • Fotolia

© kitzcorner • Fotolia

This difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that every writer and reader has a different tolerance level for description. Faced with a paragraph of description, one critique partner may say it’s boring and encourage you to cut it, while another will be enchanted by your poetic imagery. You can’t please everyone so, at the risk of giving you a Ricky Nelson earworm, you’ve got to please yourself.

Within reason.

Readers get enough detail to envision each scene taking place.

You need to give the readers enough to go on. This is related to Blank Stage Syndrome. Adding relevant descriptive details will not only convey your setting, they can reveal a lot about character as well. Let’s compare.

Blayse walked into the office kitchen and poured herself a cup of coffee.

Now we know Blayse works in an office, they have a kitchen, and she drinks coffee. But how about this:

Blayse trudged into the cramped kitchen and pulled a chipped mug from the assortment hanging on the wall. She filled it with the sludge left in the bottom of the one remaining pot on the three-burner coffee maker.

Now we know she works in kind of a shabby office, but one that goes through lots of coffee, and she’s desperate if she’s drinking the dregs. One more:

Blayse opened the cherry-wood kitchen cupboard and took out one of the tall black slant-sided mugs. She placed it under the spout of the Keurig machine and plugged in a decaf caramel mocha K-cup.

Now we have a fancier kitchen with matching mugs and no concern about economizing on coffee. Blayse doesn’t need the coffee—she picked decaf. She just wants the flavor.

Not every item in your story needs to be described to this level. But the things your character handles, eats, or otherwise interacts with should be described in enough detail that the reader has an immersive experience. The degree to which your viewpoint character experiences a thing will determine the degree to which you should describe it. If Blayse walks past the kitchen on her way to the conference room, you needn’t describe the kitchen at all.

Next time we’ll look at what happens when we give too much detail.

Upcoming writers conferences

I am a big believer in writers attending conferences. Next to belonging to a great critique group, it’s the best thing you can do for your writing career. You’ll build relationships with writers and others in the business that will help you pursue your career. You’ll take classes to improve your art. And you’ll have the joy of being around people who understand what you mean when you say, “My hero went a completely different direction than I expected. He really surprised me.”

I’ll be on faculty for two Florida conferences that are coming up. Continue reading

Use similes and metaphors to aid description

Several years ago, Margie Lawson taught a workshop put on by the Florida Writers Foundation in advance of the annual Florida Writers Association Conference. Margie teaches about the need to delve deep into character emotion to reach readers. When, at the end of the course, she asked what most struck us, the fellow sitting behind me said “I need to learn to cut loose with the metaphors.”

I don’t know whether he is also a recovering journalist, but he’s right.

Comparisons and similes are used to engage readers.

A farm boy. Poor. Poor and perfect. With eyes like the sea after a storm.—The Princess Bride, William Goldman

When Buttercup describes Westley’s eyes this way, she’s using a powerful simile that even echoes the backstory, because she believes he was killed while at sea. Continue reading

Give richer descriptions of important things

One key to having an appropriate amount of description in your story is proportion. The amount of time you spend describing an object should be relative to its story purpose.

Settings and objects are described in proportion to their importance.

It’s easy to spend lots of time describing the places, objects, and people you can visualize clearly, and to gloss over the things you’re fuzzy about. But if you’re fuzzy, the reader will be, and that’s not what we want. Instead, provide rich descriptions of things that are important to the story, and gloss over the things that are incidental. Continue reading

Use description to engage the reader

Description is a necessary element of fiction, but people differ greatly on how much is enough and how much is too much. When you show your draft to critique partners and beta readers, you may get wildly different evaluations about how you’re doing on this point. I recently finished the first draft of the second book in the Prophet’s Chronicle series. Of one particular scene, I had one critique partner say the description ran too long and he started skimming. Another thought it was beautiful and poetic, and she loved it.

Nevertheless, there are a few things we can say about description that hold true across genres and writing styles.

Each scene includes a baseline descriptor to aid the reader.

Even if you’re a minimalist writer, give the reader enough to ground them in the scene. This can be as simple as the living room, the outer bailey, Space Station K-7. Continue reading

Em Dashes in Dialogue

Last time, we looked at using ellipses in your dialogue. Up next: em dashes.

Punctuation such as em dashes and ellipses are used correctly.

using quotation marks

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The em dash—it looks like this—is used to indicate a break of thought or speech. It can be used parenthetically, as in the previous sentence, or singly, for example if a character changes topic mid-sentence.

“The next slide shows the third quarter—no, sorry, that’s the wrong slide.”

It can also be used to show an interruption. Continue reading