Have you ever been reading a story and found it bogged down in tedious detail or flowery and irrelevant descriptions?
You want to get back to the characters and the action, so you skim through pages of detailed descriptions, maybe even skip a page or two until something starts happening.
Or, you’re reading along and you realize that you have no idea what a character looks like, or what the room is like where the action is taking place. There are not enough details to create a full picture of the characters and action in your mind’s eye.
The trick is to find the balance, to add enough details in your stories that your reader can picture the characters, the setting, and the action while keeping the story’s pacing.
If you struggle with this, you’re not alone. Knowing how much detail to add in your writing is a super common struggle, and one that teen writers ask me about often.
Five Guidelines to Evaluate your Details
1) Before writing, visualize the whole scene in your head, like you’re watching your story play out as a movie scene. What jumps out at you in your visualization? What items or characters draw your attention?
Those details are what you’ll want to describe in your scene. You want too add enough detail that your reader can picture the setting and the characters but not so much that they bog down the story. Visualization like this can help decide what to include and leave out.
2) Look at the purpose of the scene and the pacing you want.
If you are writing an action scene, cut way back on the amount of details you add (I’m talking about descriptive details here).
Focus on the characters’ actions and reactions to what’s happening. You want it to move fast.
But, if you’re writing a really suspenseful scene, slow the pace down and add lots of sensory details to ratchet up the tension. I’ve got a good example of this in the “Read Like a Writer” ebook. In the book, I break down a suspense scene and talk about the details and how they work with the pacing.
3) As you revise, check each scene for the details.
If you have characters floating in space with NO description of setting or the characters, add some.
But, if the action and plot come to a halt because you spent half a page describing a character walking across a room or what the flowers look like in the yard, cut some of it. No matter how beautiful or lovely the prose, if it stops the story, cut.
4) Get some writing buddies to read your work and ask them what details are necessary and what you should cut.
This is great feedback from a writing partner or critique group. If you don’t have one of those, post a paragraph or two on WTW and ask your question at the top. WTW’ers can give you some feedback. We’ve got some great writers here.
5) Complete one of these exercises to help you add details.
If you need help adding details and expanding your descriptions, the following three practice exercises will help:
If you’re not sure what types of details to add, this post describes all kinds of sensory details that help bring your characters and stories to life.
What’s your favorite descriptive line, in something you’ve written or from your favorite book? Share in the comments below.
Thanks so much for taking this writerly journey with me.