Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Balancing the Details

Too much detail or not enough? It’s something I ask myself with every scene I write. A boring info dump gives readers license to put the story down and never pick it up again (unless it happens to be a subject of interest to them.) When I try to understand what makes me like reading a certain story, I realize that it is the details—those bits and pieces of information that do all the world-building or that show the POV character’s perspective of things and people around them.

So then the next question becomes: Do I have the right kinds of details in my story?

What are the right details? I don’t think there is a definitive answer to that. Each story has its own flavor. In a story about magic I’d expect to find quirky magic details and a world where magic is a part of daily life. In a story about biochemistry I’d expect scientific details that furthered the plot and opened the way to a resolution. For a place set out of the real world, I’d want to know what it look, sounds, and feels like. I’d need to know what makes this world different from the real one.

Sometimes it’s easy to get sidetracked. Perhaps we’ve brainstormed/researched our world or culture in depth. It’s tempting to pack a story with every little thing we’ve thought of, to drown our audience in the tsunami of our brilliant ideas/discoveries. It’s important to keep a good handle on when to share certain details and only to use details that enhance the plot or characters at those times. Keep in perspective what details matter for that particular scene or that will throw in some subtle foreshadowing.

Details make up the bulk of a story. They change an ordinary conversation into something extraordinary and fun to read. They alter what might be generic blah into a sensory reading experience. From setting description to what phrases and unique words people use, details drive a story.

For example:

Without detail:
He walked carefully outside and took in the view at a glance. It was beautiful and strange at the same time. Nothing like home. Strange plants and animals, a strange sky, and a road waiting to be explored. 

With detail:
He walked down the ramp onto the soft ground and wished he wore a pair of boots rather than standard ship’s slippers. The crimson sky spanned from one horizon to the next without breaking for mountains, trees, or clouds. Large asteroids floated above and dark silhouettes with broad wings flapped off to the north. A patch of glowing insects came over the nearest rise, playing hide-and-seek amid the tall stalks of some brittle looking plant. Shadows deepened along the ground creating long lines where the ground dipped. The beaten-down path wound through the parched landscape. The pits and gullies seemed to swallow it up and although he could see a long way off, there was no inkling of his destination. The air sucked his skin dry and he worried it would tighten and crackle. Maybe he’d need that bear grease after all.

The second example gives the reader a much more accurate picture of the world and its strangeness to the POV character. The first example left much open to reader interpretation and the setting could have been anywhere.

For fun, take the first example and write up a different detailed example and, if you’d like to, share your version in the comments.

Do you have a favorite book/series or two where the details really pop and make the story come alive? Please share.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Joyce!

    Too many details can bog down the pace of a story while not enough leaves the reader disoriented, so yes, balance is key.