If plot is the fabric of a story, then details are what stitch it together.
Yes, I admit it: I’m one of those readers who skips over lengthy paragraphs of establishing detail so I can get to the action, particularly if the story is set in a familiar environment. I don’t need tons of descriptive detail in order to fully enjoy the long-awaited love scene, or the shocking discovery of the murder victim, or whatever it is I’m anticipating.
So how do you keep your readers engaged between dialogue exchanges and bursts of action? Reward your reader’s patience by including details that enrich and inform.
A common mistake newer writers make is including too much detail. The writer sees the story so clearly in their mind’s eye they wish for a reader to visualize it exactly the same way. What they often don’t realize is that readers don’t want to be passive participants in the reading experience. Readers want to employ their own imaginations, to have the ability to fill in the blanks of a scene or a setting. It’s one of the reasons people often say, “The book was better than the movie,” because the film is somebody else’s interpretation of a character or setting.
When I’m drafting a new scene, there are several elements I address when considering how much setting and character detail to include: blocking; familiarity of the environment; specificity of objects; and the stage of each character’s development.
Blocking: Anyone who’s ever been on a stage is familiar with this term, which refers to the geographical location of the characters in the scene. Sometimes blocking can reveal character and/or further the plot, such as: “Jessie and Nicholas squared off on opposite sides of the small office.” Already we know there’s conflict between these two characters.
Conversely, it can slow pacing and even be misleading: “Nash sat down at the table. Erica sat down on his right side while Olivia chose the seat on his left.” Unless seat selection reveals character or is part of the plot, get your characters to the table (“They gathered around their mother’s dining room table, the lingering fear of her stinging tongue still palpable after all these years.”) and get on with the show.
Familiarity of environment: The more familiar the location to your readers, the less detail required. And of those details, focus on the ones your characters will interact with. For example, your MC walks into a classroom, a setting most of your readers have personally experienced. Instead of describing the room in detail, pick out the one or two details that will advance your story:
“Rows of small tables filled the classroom, each seating two students. I found an empty spot next to one of the prettiest guys I’d ever seen.”
Specificity of objects: This is a detail that can be used to reveal your characters. For example, in my current WIP, a character working as a bodyguard picks up a copy of The Wall Street Journal while on guard at a library. She could have just picked up a magazine or stood filing her nails, but this character is aware her profession has a limited shelf life and is concerned about investing for the future. This action by itself does not a character make, but subtle layering of details throughout the book will give readers a deeper understanding of, and an emotion connection to, your character.
The Stage of a Character’s Development: When we first meet a character important to the story, your reader will want a physical snapshot. The details you initially share should reveal character as well as physical traits. For example:
“He was a big man in every way; from still-powerful shoulders straining at the seams of his monogrammed dress shirt, to his beefy hands, crisscrossed with ancient scars. His thinning hair was quite grey, almost white, and razed into bristles. His eyes, shielded by a large pair of silver-rimmed glasses, were steely, and despite being diminished by folds of aging skin, they were clear and piercing.”
Hopefully, I’ve revealed the essence of this man’s character along with his physical appearance. The next time we meet him, his character will be enhanced not with further physical description, but through details such as specificity of objects (“his sandpaper voice made rougher by the single malt scotch”).
If you have favorite techniques for deciding what details to include in your writing, I’d love to hear from you on Twitter @kestrester or on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/kestresterauthor.