How Much Detail?
So, we all know the adage of show not tell. In the preponderance of scenes, showing the protagonist yelling, “Damn right, I’m mad!” is more effective than writing “Sarah was angry.”
To show effectively, you need to be specific in the details of the scene.
Not just: Samantha was suddenly alarmed as both men looked like they were about to fight.
But: The two circled each other. Adam raised a clenched fist and suddenly, Brian swung one up, too. “This is crazy!” yelled Samantha. “You think you’re gonna duke it out?”
How much detail is enough?
As I have already discussed in Description Gone Wild, doing static descriptions of the room, the weather, the characters, etc. need to be used carefully to avoid losing the reader’s interest in the plot. But writers also get caught in how much detail to include as part of the story. Let me give you an example.
Larry examined the lightbulb, shaking it, but there was no tell tale rattle of a broken filament. He craned his neck up to the socket and brushed away a possibly imaginary bit of cobweb. “This has been out of commission for a long time,” he thought. He looked around for the switch. It was way over on the other side of the room, at the base of the stairs. But he could see that the toggle was down. He cupped the bulb and fit it into the socket. Then he began to turn.
Now, under what circumstance could this turgid piece of prose be considered worthwhile including in the story and, more importantly, interesting to the reader?
The automatic answer might be ‘none,’ but there is at least one situation when it might be appropriate. If a bomb is about to go off when the bulb and socket connect, the extreme detail could add suspense. But this is the important bit: the reader must know it’s going to happen.
If she does, then the detail increases tension. If she doesn’t, then all the detail is a nuisance to get through. Even if the bomb goes off at exactly the same spot in the story in both instances.
And if there is no bomb or other significant event attached to the lightbulb, when could it be used?
Okay, if changing the lightbulb might be needed for verisimilitude, you could go with:
At the bottom of the stairs, Larry flipped the switch. Nothing. He sighed and headed over to the socket.
And even this little bit isn’t needed if being in the dark has no other function—such as metaphor or foreshadowing.
Don’t fall in love with your writing
Sometimes, when the Muse is with you, your fingers fly over the keyboard and everything which emerges feels like gold. The moments we all live for.
However, in the cold light of day (i.e. editing), it’s not to say that every word created during that glow is still gold. What probably can be retained is the energy of the piece. But be on the look-out for bits that are surplus to requirements.
In short, detail, like description, needs always to be in the service of the story. Even a lovely and evocative element which you would hate to lose must be put under the plot microscope. If it isn’t doing something—even in a minor way—to create the story you want, then consider the chop.