Hopefully by now you’ve not just read through the other parts of this blog series, but also practiced these things.
A writer isn’t a writer unless they write.
You will never finish your story–any story–unless you put butt in chair and fingers to keyboard.
All of you who have done your practice, feel free to continue.
We’ve gone over how to write sentence to sentence, scene to scene, and touched on how genre conventions inform our story. What’s left?
Details. And these are arguably the most important part of writing.
Without important and interesting details, you don’t have a story–you have a summary. And no one wants to read a summary.
Well, maybe they do if you’re lucky enough to have your book be taught in schools and kids all go to Wikipedia or Cliff’s Notes or Sparknotes (or whatever kids use these days) so they don’t actually have to read your book. If you’re reading this blog for writing advice, you are not that lucky.
Details make the story.
Slaughterhouse Five isn’t iconic because of the war story, the main character’s depression or even the aliens. It’s iconic because of the way it depicts those things. You might be tempted to argue that it’s because of Billy Pilgrim’s unique view on the world (aka him as a character)—my retort is that the details the character chooses to experience and fixate on are what fleshes out a character. It bears repeating, that without details, all you have is a summary of a character.
Okay, well, how do we choose what details to include?
It depends on what you want to accomplish with Genre and with your viewpoint Character.
Let’s pretend we have one old house seen by two stories and two characters.
In the first, a classic haunted house horror story, the main character is scared out of their wits in the old house. They focus on the creaking walls, the confusing layout, the draft that feels like a ghost just walked behind them. Their hearts are pounding, their hands are clammy, and they call out with a stuttering voice, “Who—who’s there?”
In the second, a romance about second chances, the main character is looking at the house with hope and whimsy. Instead of the creaking walls, they focus on the strong ‘bones’ of the house. The layout has character, and a little fixing up will take care of that draft and the yellowing walls. They think of making the house their own.
That’s just a quick illustration between two sets of genre and main character. But let’s assume you’ve got that part down—how do you know which details to include? How do you know which details are interesting enough to include?
This is trickier. Obviously we’ve all read a bloated, overblown description before. You know the one–the description that drags on and on for pages. I know I’ve read some that were so long I put the book down and didn’t pick it back up. Unless you’re describing a sci fi or fantasy world that’s so incredibly different from our own, you do not need that much description.
My suggestion is to revisit books that you enjoy and count the number of details that go into describing something. How many does the author use for a Main Character? How about a side character? A recurring location like a homebase or a minor location? Be sure to count the number of descriptive things weaved into the scene as well!
What you’ll find is that the more important things get proportionally more description. Sometimes main characters get a whole page. Sometimes half. How much do you think is too much? Some of it will come down to your personal taste. Check in with beta readers and critique partners too. Feedback helps a lot.
Here are a couple easy answers:
- If possible, try to make every description serve both the viewpoint Character and the setting/genre. Reread the two descriptions of the old house above.
- Don’t waste time describing the mundane. Picture a laptop—done. Picture a black cat—done. No more needs to be said, unless it’s somehow relevant to the story; if the laptop has interesting stickers all over it or it has a weird screensaver, feel free to give us those. Don’t tell us that it has a Qwerty keyboard. If the black cat is a Character’s pet, feel free to describe it’s personality or the hair it’s missing, etc.
- When in doubt of how much description is too much, use the rule of three. If you, the writer, want to describe something important to the story, try to narrow it down to the three most important or interesting details. Bonus points if you can hit multiple senses.
Alright, practice time—write something new. Write your next scene (or a new story) and try out some of these rules. It helps to keep a cheat sheet nearby to remind you of pertinent character details and genre conventions. Remember that every description, every sentence, needs to serve the story.