Details can enliven a story or choke it. All authors have asked themselves at some point, ‘Am I using too much or too little detail?’ Many writers struggle between saying too little, resulting in bare-bones writing, or saying too much, resulting in superfluous purple-prose. Some authors became famous and successful while using a detail minimalist style, such as Hemingway, while others, like J.R.R. Tolkien use exorbitant amounts of details. Sometimes a lot of details are needed to illustrate a specific image, and sometimes few details are needed to maintain brevity and pacing. Some authors write in ambivalent ways, allowing readers’ imaginations to fill gaps between descriptions. Like many aspects of writing, there are no hard and fast rules for using details. In this entry, Xlibris Writing Tips seeks to offer advice and suggestions for authors to consider while using details in your works.
Details for Setting
Especially for writers of fantasy and science-fiction, there is the great temptation to explain everything there is to tell about your interesting world. There is nothing wrong about being excited or enthusiastic about your created setting, so long as you curb your enthusiasm. Few if any reader enjoys having to endure exposition purely for the purpose of imparting information to the reader. There are more organic ways to reveal one’s world to one’s readers. Instead of revealing everything at once, consider unfolding your setting, sharing knowledge and perspective about your setting as it is relevant to a current situation, through dialogue, interactions or events. Want to explain a key point of recent history? Have two characters discuss it as part of a lesson, with one character as a teacher. Or have a survivor from the losing side of a war reminisce with alcohol over the war’s end.
Details can be particularly troubling when trying to introduce or implement a specific and important piece of magic or technology. As with the rest of your setting’s details, avoid just saying every rule regarding your setting’s magic or technology. As with other setting details, reveal magical or technical details as is relevant to your story. For example, explain how exactly magic works in your story the first time your main character uses magic, perhaps even have the character’s thought processes reveal how magic works. Or explain how a starship’s engines work as its engines are being activated, through the activation process. In short, there are many ways to illustrate your setting and how it works to your readers beyond long exposition.
Details for Characters
Successful and classical writers across history have varied when it comes to detailing their characters. Some writers go into comprehensive and precise details as to how characters look, dress, move, or talk, while other writers focus on a handful of key details. When it comes to characters, use details according to what is important or relevant at that moment in the story. You might use great detail to describe how someone dresses to emphasize that character’s social standing or lifestyle. If it is a first impressions scenario, what details in particular stand out or are most distinctive? If you are writing a fight, consider what details are most relevant to that fight.
Details for Actions
When it comes to actions, use adverbs as is most appropriate for a situation. Multiple, many syllable words would be ill-suited for a fast paced car chase, as such words would only slow the pacing. The nature of the adverbs applied should say something about the scenes and actions they are enhancing. You may even find times when no adverbs are need at all.
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