1. GoldenFeather
    Offline

    GoldenFeather Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 10, 2012
    Messages:
    219
    Likes Received:
    79

    How do you know when you've given enough detail?

    Discussion in 'Setting Development' started by GoldenFeather, Jan 11, 2016.

    Let's say you're writing about a car accident. Some of the details of the accident don't play a bigger role in the story (colour of the car, the model, etc). Do you think these details should be included?

    At which point do we leave the reader to build the rest of the setting, and to which extent must we provide detail to help their foundation?

    In other words, how do we know when we have provided enough for the reader to work with? How do you gauge your detailing? Too little and your readers might not be able to paint a good picture; too much and you risk losing their interest or overwhelming them. How do you find that balance?
     
    Last edited: Jan 11, 2016
  2. Masked Mole
    Offline

    Masked Mole Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Apr 24, 2015
    Messages:
    381
    Likes Received:
    284
    First of all, it's helpful to think about the character's perspective. If you're writing in the first person, perhaps there are certain details the MC would care about more than others.
    Second, what would you notice personally in an accident? I'm guessing that your thoughts are similar to many others.
    Thirdly, consider what would be smooth to the reader. If you've written in a descriptive style up to that point, the reader will be expecting the same methods in this scene.
    Hope that helps.
     
    Lifeline likes this.
  3. tonguetied
    Offline

    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 23, 2014
    Messages:
    547
    Likes Received:
    218
    Location:
    Near Atlanta
    I don't have enough expertise to address this subject properly, but I do think this is one of the reasons to let your novel "rest" for several months after your initial first draft so that the story is not so fresh in your mind. You will be your own best judge of what you think is too much or too little detail IMO. I recently read "Saturn Run" by John Sandford and Ctein and while I love sci-fi that has good science detail in it, the story spent too much time explaining the ship engines and cooling system and how long it takes to get to Saturn. While I don't doubt their expertise it was just too much detail for me to enjoy reading it all, expecting more relevance to the plot considering the detail given, and not finding it, the relevance that is. In my mind you need to include enough detail to demonstrate how and why the action occurs and then probably a little more to camouflage it so it doesn't give away the drama.
     
    Lifeline, BayView and GoldenFeather like this.
  4. The Mad Regent
    Offline

    The Mad Regent Contributing Member

    Joined:
    May 26, 2015
    Messages:
    1,024
    Likes Received:
    427
    Location:
    Wirral, England
    I've got two things I can add to this topic:

    1) I think details based on real experience (if you have any) should be top of the list. It's alright to sit back and let your imagination run wild, or do a little research to grasp some understanding of the situation, but your own personal experience is always a) easier to write, and b) totally genuine. Nobody can turn around and say 'that's bullshit', because you know personally what it feels like.

    2) I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing lately, and one great piece of advice about details I came across is that you should forge generic descriptions: words or phrases that cover a large part of the scenic canvas. These kinds of descriptions leave us with a slightly vaguer image, but enough for us to visualize the scene without explaining every tiny detail. If you were to say to someone 'She's a goth,' they would automatically develop an idea or image of what her personality and appearance would be like. However, you should detail specific things in your descriptions if they're important to the scene. Summarizing is probably the best way to describe it, but Stephen King puts it in a lot better perspective because he's a master and I'm a scrub.
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2016
    GoldenFeather likes this.
  5. Ben414
    Offline

    Ben414 Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Aug 1, 2013
    Messages:
    974
    Likes Received:
    785
    While I used to not think this way, I have very much come around to the idea that answering most of these questions comes down to you specifically reading books you want yours to be like and seeing how those authors handle similar scenarios. I've read a lot of writing/story how-to books--and I've found them very helpful--but actual fiction books that you want yours to be like are invaluable in these situations.
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2016
    BayView and GoldenFeather like this.
  6. Okon
    Offline

    Okon Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 26, 2013
    Messages:
    694
    Likes Received:
    389
    If something is of note, it should probably be noted. Think about what comes to mind when you recall things. I don't normally pay attention to shoes or pants, especially if said pants are black, or blue denim. How would you describe one friend to another who had never met him? What part stands out? Those are things that affect the theme and image, and that will possibly resonate more with readers.

    Personally, I try to focus on the significance of a lot of the things the POV experiences. Someone's hair will make him imagine an octopus draped over the noggin, or her shirt will be race-car red, instead of just red. Every now and then I'll keep it extra vague so the reader comes up with their own idear: that race-car red shirt might end up just being a race-car coloured shirt. What colour? Well, whatever vibrant part of the rainbow popped into the reader's head first.

    How would you talk about a horrible car accident at the water-cooler that day? As water glubs out from the listing, upended body at injured and shouting coworkers, I'd probably regard the shattered plastic, imagining that it must have broken like muted glass when the Lincoln crashed through the wall and hit it. I'd also note the chunks of drywall that seem to pour into the room with the car. I wouldn't think about the wallpaper, and I don't think the colour of the car matters in this case either. That's what would stick with me, but it will be very different for each person. Back to what I said at the start of this post: try to think of what would strike you or the POV, and write that.

    -edit for spelling
     
    Last edited: Jan 14, 2016
    GoldenFeather likes this.
  7. Inks
    Offline

    Inks Contributing Member

    Joined:
    Aug 24, 2015
    Messages:
    655
    Likes Received:
    167
    I am quite partial to limited descriptions except for those of the utmost importance which define the moment. A walk through someone's home will give much insight, but those are also filtered through individual characters' views and I use those different viewpoints to construct a layered approach to characters through repeated exposure. My main concern is the impressions, deductions and state of mind of the characters and not on the stage which the action takes place.

    Still, defining with precision is something I do. This has resulted in many obscure words, but I do not overuse adjectives and typically provide only a single description such as "kaolin fineries" for miscellaneous care products.
     
  8. GoldenFeather
    Offline

    GoldenFeather Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 10, 2012
    Messages:
    219
    Likes Received:
    79
    This is the best advice. I never realized that vagueness was important to allow space for the reader to create. I had always felt responsible, as the writer, to create all that space for the reader. I also didn't realize that you must describe through the character's eyes, and not necessarily narratively from myself. This helped tremendously, thank you!
     
  9. tonguetied
    Offline

    tonguetied Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    May 23, 2014
    Messages:
    547
    Likes Received:
    218
    Location:
    Near Atlanta
    I too like Okon's advice but I also think Inks brought up something interesting. The level of detail maybe affected by the POV of the story, this may not be directly addressing your question but it does provide a way to add details both good and conflicting that might spin the tale in an interesting way.
     
  10. Aster
    Offline

    Aster Member

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2015
    Messages:
    81
    Likes Received:
    43
    Location:
    Melbourne
    The car was wrapped sideways around the tree like a fortune cookie.

    I didn't say much. But you might get an impression not only of what the crash looks like, but you might have theories about what happened. For a car to crash into something side on, it would have had to have been spinning, swerving, skidding. Otherwise it would have crashed head on. You get an impression of just how devastating the impact was. The whole vehicle is bent around the tree. It suggests great speed was involved. You think, too, that it is very unlikely the people in the car survived, let alone the person who may have been sitting at the point of impact.

    Maybe you made immediate assumptions about the setting, the location. You may have pictured a tree lined roadside. A long stretch of narrow road or bending mountain trail.

    Perhaps you get an idea of the narrator too. It's an almost flippant observation. The POV character could be detached from the scene, trying to distance his or herself from the horror of it.

    My point is you can say a lot by saying very little.

    As for knowing if and when you've said enough, so long as you mention what you need for future plot points to make sense, then it basically comes down to your personal style.
     
  11. GoldenFeather
    Offline

    GoldenFeather Active Member

    Joined:
    Aug 10, 2012
    Messages:
    219
    Likes Received:
    79
    ^ I agree with most of what you said, however not ever reader will be able (or want to) deduce that much information from a single statement. I feel like our job as writers is to also make this process easier for our readers, and guide them through any symbolism or implications, without having them to do too much work for it.
     
  12. Electralight
    Offline

    Electralight Member

    Joined:
    Jan 6, 2016
    Messages:
    61
    Likes Received:
    22
    Location:
    Dominica
    I think it all depends on the writer. I've read books where writers spend paragraph after paragraph describing a small little thing, and I've read books that leave almost everything up to imagination. I like it to be somewhere in the middle, but I don't think there is a right or wrong way to go here. Just go with your gut, and reveal whatever you want. You could go with something like what @Aster said,
    or you could go for something longer, if that is what the scene is asking for.
     
  13. Lew
    Offline

    Lew Contributing Member Contributor

    Joined:
    Sep 30, 2015
    Messages:
    586
    Likes Received:
    402
    Having been in a few accidents: what you notice is bizarre... in one instance, a car pulled out directly in front of me while I was going down a major highway, she was attempting a left turn. I remember seeing her pull out and realizing collision was imminent, braking, trying to go behind her, seeing the back of her head... she was looking right while I was coming on her left. She turned her head when I braked, eyes wide, and she immediately braked... which meant I hit her. Big bang! Thinking "Aw shit!" Oddly didn't notice the air bag going off. Vague memory of steering/braking the car to a stop, silence, dash lights, engine stalled, clicking noise of cooling metal. Then I noticed the air bag in my lap, dust all over, stinky smell. Surprised when I noticed it... what the hell is this thing, oh that's the airbag. Several seconds (maybe not that long), sitting there, quick check to see if anything hurt, then shut down, get out, no fire, check on her.

    Things really happen in slow motion, and the oddest details stick out, while things you think you would notice, like the airbag, are not noticed at all. Car I hit? Sedan, dark, that's all.

    If the POV is someone watching, they probably won't see many details either, unless they have several seconds to watch the accident happen. Otherwise, they won't start noticing things until the bang, things after that. Not have watched an accident, I don't know what I would observe. Ask someone who has. Describe to the level of detail that the POV would see.
     
  14. Aster
    Offline

    Aster Member

    Joined:
    Dec 30, 2015
    Messages:
    81
    Likes Received:
    43
    Location:
    Melbourne
    Have faith in your words.
    Also, have faith in your readers.

    Besides not all meaning is understood consciously. It happens, most of the time, unconsciously. How the mind works is that we get an impression and make quick judgements about what's going on.

    For example, read this sentence and then go back and read it again, this time considering the meaning of each individual word on its own and how it builds the meaning of the sentence.

    I guarantee the first time you read the sentence you were barely even aware of the meaning of the words on their own, even though you need an understanding of their individual definitions to understand the meaning of the sentence.

    Actually consider the meaning of "For". Then "example". Then the comma and what that means. You just don't read that way. You don't talk that way. You don't listen that way. I know this seems like an overly complicated principle to apply to writing but we all do it naturally.
     
  15. karldots92
    Offline

    karldots92 Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 4, 2016
    Messages:
    180
    Likes Received:
    84
    Location:
    Ireland
    The other thing to consider us that descriptions aren't always about what things look like or to give the reader a picture of important things. Descriptions can also set mood and generate emotive responses in the reader. For example rather than say that you were walking down a dark alley you can add detail describing the alley in order to make the reader feel the tension. While the alley itself is not necessarily an important plot point it can be used to create mood and emotion - in this case trepidation and fear.
     
  16. MichaelP
    Offline

    MichaelP Active Member

    Joined:
    Jan 3, 2014
    Messages:
    125
    Likes Received:
    49
    Hm. This is an interesting question. I ultimately try to give as much detail in as few words and as unobtrusively as I can. Description can set mood (as can metaphors and similes). It's important to take into consideration how you describe something. If it's autumn and the trees are bare and the sun is faint, you can describe the trees as "withered fingers ready to grab" the protagonist, which will perhaps create a foreboding mood, or you can compare the autumn sun to the "faint glow of a gas lamp," and the trees reaching up as if to "bask in its warmth," implying calmer mood.
     
  17. Lifeline
    Offline

    Lifeline The Dark - not in Wonderland Supporter Contributor

    Joined:
    Oct 12, 2015
    Messages:
    1,392
    Likes Received:
    1,545
    Location:
    UK - the place betwixt and between
    Say you want to describe a grassy plain. You have a character standing there. You could simply focus on what this character experiences in that moment, or you could describe the plains with vivid words that paint the atmosphere hanging around. There are scenes when you want to give a certain impression, where the mood is important.

    I choose what is important for the reader to notice. Is it important to focus on the character? Is it important for the story that the surroundings have a specific atmosphere? Or both? One after another? I adjust to what I perceive is most needed in each paragraph and try to stay focused.
     
  18. BoddaGetta
    Offline

    BoddaGetta Active Member

    Joined:
    Nov 2, 2010
    Messages:
    168
    Likes Received:
    73
    Location:
    Colorado, USA
    Think about it from the person's perspective, or even your own and then adapt it for your character.

    When you drive past a horrific car accident, what are the details that would stick out to you? Probably you'd take more note of the twisted metal of the car laying in the ravine, rather than the color of the vehicle.
     
  19. Samurai Jack
    Offline

    Samurai Jack Active Member

    Joined:
    Dec 6, 2010
    Messages:
    167
    Likes Received:
    101
    Location:
    Nashville, TN
    If the details do not matter to you, and/or you are okay with the reader injecting their own details into your story, leave the details out. I'm immediately going to say the car was a 2015 red Dodge Dart. Have I impacted the plot at all?

    I write it, then I let people read it, and they tell me. Any answer other than direct feedback is always going to end up being "it depends," and even then direct feedback can be contradictory.
     

Share This Page