and what to do about them. No, the answer is not always, ‘add more.’
(This post was spawned at the last minute by the sudden coalescence of a bunch of half awake and partially caffeinated thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for about a month. You have been warned.)
Advice for new writers often includes ‘add detail’ and ‘give your characters something to differentiate them from everyone else’. This is not completely wrong; getting what’s in your head onto the page is difficult, and if you don’t include description, the reader can feel like the story is taking place in a vacuum. Worse is when the reader mentally fills in a detail that’s later contradicted. It can be as simple as the character’s hair or eye color that isn’t mentioned until the last chapter, when a character that someone thought was blond turns out to be a redhead. Sometimes the reader moves on without a hitch; other times, it throws them out of the story.
I’m going through that exact problem right now in the time travel WIP. One character is white; the other is black. But they’ve been friends for so long that they don’t notice; the other one is ‘my friend,’ not ‘my black friend,’ or ‘my white friend.’ Since one character’s race becomes slightly more important later on, I need to describe him at some point. I can’t let the reader assume, then pull the rug out from under them later in the story.
How to solve the problem? Good question. I think I’m going to hold off describing them until I get to another character’s POV, which is also their second appearance on the page. They’re strangers to her, and she’s a very visually-oriented person, so noticing things like eye or skin color is less jarring to the reader.
But you can’t always do that; some detail is necessary. How much, and what kinds?
Every story is different. So is every genre, author, and reader, and they combine to form a unique experience. You, the author can’t possibly account for the baggage your readers bring to the story; you will be misunderstood at some point. So it’s difficult to impossible to lay down hard and fast rules for including detail.
I’d start with, ‘don’t let your details contradict each other or reality.’ Yes, I’m looking at you, Rings of Power. Your nomadic tribe isn’t going to bury their dead in an orchard. Orchards are owned by people, who will be very upset at random passersby digging under their valuable trees. Not mention the difficulty of digging through a bunch of tree roots with hand tools.
Ahem. I may be a little salty on the subject. Your readers will be just as salty if you add stupid details without doing any research on whether they make sense or have any connection to reality. In cases like that, it’s better to leave out the detail and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps.
Another good rule of thumb- I got this one from watching costume design and cosplay videos- is, ‘make your details mean something. Don’t add detail for the sake of adding detail.’ This is also known as Chekov’s Gun, and while it’s more important in visual media, it’s still a useful tool for writers.
Part of the reason I detested the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (yes, I’m apparently a freak. What else is new?) is that the author included massive amounts of detail, naming zillions of other planets and alien species, describing their customs and habits, and going on tangents about the history and technology of the universe. And none of it meant anything in the end; 90% of it was detail for the sake of adding detail. I spent most of the series trying to store little bits of information in my head, thinking they’d be important later, and swearing at the book when I got to the end and it was all worthless.
That doesn’t mean every little thing has to be vitally important to the story. Your character’s choice between Coke or Pepsi can be just that, with no deeper meaning. But if you devote a paragraph to explaining why one is better than the other, your readers will expect that to show up again, and will feel less satisfied if it doesn’t.
Thus concludes today’s rant, because, if I don’t stop here, I’m going start in on interior design, the rise of the ‘quirky’ aesthetic, and the difference between real life and photo composition, and oops, there goes the rest of the day.
Your turn- what egregious examples of too much, too little, or just plain wrong details and description have you encountered lately?