We’ve all been there. Instead of being productive, we spent way too much time dreaming up each detail of the spooky old mansion down the street from your character’s house. We plan every second of our protagonist’s childhood. We know what our characters’ bedrooms look like and what backpack they carry and all their allergies. There’s a picture in our head, and we want nothing more than to get that same exact picture into the reader’s brain.

But it’s not going to happen.

You could spend a thousand words on your character’s kitchen, but no one could ever see exactly what you see. Sure, try conveying those three years of middle school in immense detail, but we’ll still never know your character as well as you do.

Are things worth describing? Are memories and little quirks worth mentioning? If there is a line between detail and oversharing, where is it?

More importantly, can I cross it effectively?

Let’s find out.

1. Will my readers find it interesting, or is it just me?

This is the hardest question to ask. Everything is interesting to you, but you’re not the one who’s reading your work. Yes, you probably think it’s cool that your antagonist likes pineapple and collects pig figurines, but—I know this sounds harsh—does anyone else care?

I don’t know about you, but I find long descriptions of setting tedious. I’m planning on majoring in architecture in college, and I still find long descriptions of setting boring. Once I’m in a place, I pretty much have a picture in my head of what that place looks like, and details like the wall color and the floor finishing are distracting.

If you must, write all these details out to help you write. But leave them in the rough draft.

2. Will my readers relate to this?

A good reason to leave detail is for resonance with the reader. Maybe your protagonist has really shaky hands and has trouble controlling them. This could definitely sit with someone dealing with a similar problem. Or maybe they have brown eyes and hate the lack of romanticizing brown eyes. I’m sure lots of people out there feel similarly.

People care about things your character cares about. Make sure your characters care about things.

3. Is it progressing my story, or maybe laying the pipes for a future incident?

It’s so cool to have a character offhandedly mention that they took martial arts classes when they were little to have them use those kung fu moves in defense later in the novel. Or maybe they show off some cool US history skills in the exposition that come in handy later when finding a treasure map. Giving your characters special skills is nice, but giving them special skills they can actually use is impressive.

And this pertains to setting, too. My dad always says that if you have a shotgun hanging above a fireplace in the first scene, it better go off by the last. If you mention a window in the beginning, have them climb out of it while escaping. Or maybe even parallel two scenes by putting them in the same (symbolic) setting if you’re feeling fancy.

When choosing which details to add in and which to keep in the fantasy world inside your head, ask yourself if your character or setting is bettered by what you’re adding to it.

Minutia gives your story voice. But you want to keep that voice captivating by limiting that minutia. I know, it’s so hard to do, but it makes your writing more provocative.

In my next post, I’ll go over how to pick what details stay and what details go based on your answers to these questions.

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Nina Martineck

Hi, everyone! I'm Nina, a seventeen-year-old writer in Western New York. I've finished my first novel, The Knowers, which is now available. :D

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2 comments

  • This is an amazing post!! The whole part about the shotgun and it firing in the end is genius! I totally agree that too much description is somewhat boring (something I personally dislike about older novels). I really like this idea about making every detail meaningful or at least relatable.

    Guess I need to add something to look out for to my list for editing…there’s definitely a lot of random descriptions I have just for the sake of filling the pages with words…if you know what I mean.

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