From time to time here at Uphill Writing I make a point about not cluttering up your work with too much detail.
One recurring theme is the drudgery of going through the protagonist’s morning ritual in preparation to get said person to a work place or an important meeting. How much do we need to know about time spent in the bathroom? Do we really need to know what he or she had for breakfast? Unless building frustration with traffic is a key to the meeting, is it necessary to include it?
On the other hand, some detail is important.
Sometimes details are another word for foreshadowing, clues, suggestions and hints. Sometimes the details are just what fill out the picture, something to add verisimilitude to your prose.
The style we choose for our work determines how we express ourselves. Rough action requires short sentences, a crisp, clipped tone, and does not sit well with flowing description. A steamy romance, however, might be well-dressed in flowery, flowing prose, and lavish detail. It is even possible to mix the two styles in the same piece of work, by stwitching between characters or points of view… although I don’t recommend it.
How do you know if you’ve got too much description? Too much detail? How do you know if you don’t have enough?
Here’s a trick that really works:
Take your page, your story, a few bits of your novel, and retype the pages leaving out every bit of description. Then reread. If your piece still stands, if it still makes sense, then perhaps you’ve put in too much detail. If you find yourself confused—or, better, if a volunteer reader is confused—then it is time to add some detail, some description back in.
Fine, but how do you go the other way? If you think you don’t have enough description, if the details of what is going on are lacking, how do you fix that?
One way is to close your eyes and see the scene in your mind. Smell the air, listen to the sounds, the noises, feel the textures of cloth, of wood, of a person’s hair. Get in touch with a scene as you would explore a strange room you suddenly find yourself in, one where you can examine everything without fear. Fill yourself with the look, the sound, the feel of the room, and see how much of what you experienced has made it to the page.
The bottom line is this: the amount of description needs to be just right. Gaaak! Whatever does that mean?
In essence, it means you need to be able to experience the scene as though you were there. But you need also remember that even if you go into a new room, you do not really examine everything in it. Pay attention to those items that give the story weight, but do not weigh it down with trivia.
Look at any room in your home with fresh eyes. Spend one minute looking, slowly turning, getting a feel for the room. Then write about what is important in it. Write about what is unique, or useful, or just interesting. Leave out the dust on the desk, or the unimportant clutter. Just write the room, and do it in a single paragraph.