Details, details…..

How much detail is enough? How much is too much?

These two questions have been constantly in my mind as I continue to reshape my rough draft into a first draft.  I didn’t focus on details at all the first time through. I just wanted to get the basic plot down on paper, to try to capture the main sequence of events and make sure everything would flow and fit together decently.

Now, though, it’s time to go back through and turn the sometimes clunky and often bare-bones prose into something I wouldn’t be embarrassed to show to a beta reader. I’ve given small excerpts to various people, sure, but the feedback I needed was on whether the basic framework for a given scene or chapter worked or didn’t work for them, not on details.

Revising the rough draft is definitely easier than writing it in the first place because I don’t have to figure out where the story’s going while also writing brand-new narrative. But it’s also harder because it means figuring out exactly how much detail, color, and texture to add, which is a more of a challenge for me. Kind of the way a painter builds a painting out of a charcoal sketch, I guess.

Do I really need to describe every little detail of my characters and physical scenes? (I hope not.) How much should I leave to the readers’ imaginations? I have clear mental images of my characters and settings and want to convey at least some of that, but don’t want to go overboard with it. Some of this will depend on my personal style, I know, and that’s where the challenge lies.

For those of you who’ve written stories or books, how do you approach this? Any tips or suggestions on what has worked for you?

Some of the things I’m trying include:

–Reading to see how others describe physical things. For instance, in Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Jim arrives at the school “just after lunch, driving an old red Alvis and towing a second-hand trailer that had once been blue.” I love that last bit, that the trailer “had once been blue.”

–Reading to see how others describe what their characters look like. Colonel Rolland is a key figure in Day of the Jackal, but he isn’t described until almost halfway through: “The lean face that had been so dashing in youth and so attractive to women in maturity was beginning to look tired and strained in middle age.” I like this because it’s just enough to give me an overall sense of his face but is spare enough to let me fill in the blanks.

–Reading my own rough draft out loud (as recommended by another blogger) to see not just where the text is particularly clunky or tedious (lots of those places!), but also where a bit more detail and description could reveal more about the characters and about the setting. This has been very helpful. The chapters I’ve read out loud and then revised often end up looking nothing like the original rough versions (which is a good thing).

I would love to hear from others on what you have tried and what has worked for you!



Filed under On Writing

4 responses to “Details, details…..

  1. I’m kind of a visual writer so I try to write enough to allow the reader to ‘see’ the scene. Description varies from scene to scene though. I write historical fiction so some scenes are more detailed in order to give the reader a sense of the period while others are less so because they rely more heavily on dialogue. For instance, I have a scene where the MC watches from a window while the death carts roll down the streets picking up dead plague victims. There’s plenty of description in that scene. I think you have to look at each scene and decide what details are important and would add to the reader’s experience of your story. Hope that helps some.


    • Linnea, appreciate your thoughts on this. I’m struggling with a scene right now where the bad guy is first introduced and want to reveal something about his character but not go overboard, since the reader won’t know he’s the bad guy until later in the story. (Does that make sense?) Anyway, I’m going to take a fresh look at it with your suggestions in mind and do some thinking about what details I can add to tell the reader more about him. Thanks!


  2. Hi, Donna. I clicked over here from the AW thread. (I’m ralf58 there.) I was just writing about this subject on my blog a week ago. One of the things I tried to do was to describe things in such a way that showed what they meant to my MC. (My book is in limited third person, so the only POV the reader gets is that of my MC.) Another thing I did was choose descriptive details that conveyed an extra layer of information–like history or humor. If you want to see my examples, you could go look at my October 2 blog post.


    • Ruth, thanks! I read your post and liked the examples that you used. They’ll help me look for more ways of adding details to better describe my characters, their personalities, and their quirks. Appreciate it very much!


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