Writing Detail: Finding the Right Balance

Last night I read the one-page intro to my 4th mystery to my sister-in-law, a retired nurse and a non-writer. It’s supposed to be funny, but her reaction was rather unexpected. “Did you write that?”

“Well, yes, why?”

“I couldn’t believe the clarity of detail in your descriptions. I could see everything you were writing about in my mind’s eye!”

I’m never one to aw shucks a nice complement. I thanked her and later on, I thought back on the incident. It was the detail of the story which had impressed her. Evidently I had written the right amount. That’s what I wanted to blog about today—the need for writers to strike a balance between enough details to make what they write interesting without being too parsimonious or too wordy. Perhaps you have read something that left you puzzled, not sure you understood what was being written. Or, perhaps you wondered when the writer was going to shut up about the golden red sunset that sent the lady, who was wearing the virginally white dress with the freshly tatted lace given to her by her latest beau into a dizzying paroxysm of awestruck marveling about…well, I think you get my drift.

Know the Genre

A good storyteller, instinctively considers the target audience’s need for information about the story and how much to include. Oral storytellers commonly tailor their tales to the vibes they get from their audiences. So much so, that it may seem they never tell the same story in the same way twice. Writers of stories don’t have the luxury of immediate audience feedback, so they have to come to an understanding of what may be expected by typical readers of the genre in which they are writing. How do they do that? By reading an immense amount of material from that genre to learn how others do it; by talking to folks who enjoy reading the genre, about who they like and why. Armed with this kind of knowledge, the writer then has a better feel for what is expected from his stories and descriptions.

Realism and Accuracy

It’s important that the details be realistic without going overboard. One wonderful example of a writer who did this consistently well was the great writer of westerns, Louis LaMour. The amount of research he did was amazing. If he wrote about a cowboy’s life being saved in the desert because he stumbled upon a watering hole at such and such a place, you could go to that location today and find that watering hole. Readers in the know were constantly blown away by the accuracy of his detail. Of course, there can also be too much of a good thing. James Michener was infamous for his, “How this region was formed and grew to be,” first chapters of almost everything he wrote. Some of us found this information to be excellent background; however, there were many readers who would actually skip over this plentitude of background detail and charge ahead to where the characters first appear so the story could commence to unroll.

Nonfiction Too

This concept of detail balance is especially evident in nonfiction. Different readers have different needs. Compare, if you would, the level of detail present in a textbook about a certain subject to the level of detail found in a simple how-to book on the same subject. Again, it’s all about who your target audience is and what they need and expect from writers. It is the amount and complexity of detail that makes written material readable. Software that provides a grade level of readability for written passages uses just these points of evaluation—word and sentence length, choice, and amount of detail.

Ignore at Your Peril

It is essential that you write with the appropriate amount and level of detail expected by your readers. There is no hard and fast rule of this. The best writers are usually the best readers—familiar enough with what they write about to find that best balance between what might be considered way too much or far too little. Good luck on the seesaw of life.

This is a cross-posting from Bob Spear‘s Book Trends blog.

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