The Devil is in the Details

As a writer, we must decide how many details to include in our created worlds. Believe it or not, there is a fine line for most readers between too little and too much. Finding that perfect detail balance is what we will discuss this week.

Devil of Details
The devil in the details can be your saving grace , or your downfall

What Readers (Mostly) Expect

Some readers will read anything by their favorite author. Take Stephen King for example. His books sell because his name is on the cover, not because of what the story is about.

Fans of authors will devour anything their guy or gal writes. Until you are that famous, though, you will have to conform more to the masses and less to the cult-like followings.

One way to do this is to give them what they expect. Knowing your target audience is great for a lot of things. However, a novel is very subjective. Even fans of thrillers may not like your particular story, while others read it in a single setting and again the following week.

One thing you can control though, is giving them enough details to let them build their own world using your guidance. Most (and I stress “most,” not all) readers will be able to flip a switch on while reading that allows the book to play out like a movie in their brain.

The way you accomplish this in your readers’ mind is to provide scene details. You want to describe your characters and the world they are in. Give them enough details and they can see the world develop as they read. Provide too little details though, and they may lose interest because they can’t “see” your environment.

You also have to be wary of giving the reader too much information. If you give them too many details the book will feel chunky, tough to read and the world they see won’t exactly match the one you are painting. This can cause confusion, frustration and the inevitable closing of the book without intentions of returning.

How to Balance Details

There isn’t a hard and fast rule to follow here. In fact, most of this is all gut feeling. However, there are some things you can do to ensure you have enough, but not too many, details in your story.

Have Beta Readers Look for Details

One method is to have people read your story and provide feedback before the final draft is written. These people are known as beta readers and you can have them give you any type of feedback you want.

My advice here is to give your beta readers a questionnaire about the details of the story, or scene they read for you. You can be as specific as you want to be here. Ask them if the movie came on in their heads easily. Find out what areas they had trouble picturing in their minds or even ask them to describe what they “saw” back to you.

Once you have the feedback from the beta readers you can decide if your vision matches what you put out against what the reader took in.

Details: Addition Through Subtraction

Another tested method is a bit more tedious but produces better results. Pick a scene or chapter and go through it, removing every descriptive word you have in there. Once all the description is removed, read the scene out loud to yourself.

As you read find where the scene needs (read: must have!) details to provide the proper picture. Add the minimum amount of details and go on. For example, if the character is searching for their keys and the keys are found on the bedside table, you need a bedside table included in the scene.

The difficult part is to not add back too much. In the bedside table example, you don’t have to describe the bedside table at all. It doesn’t matter that it has a broken door that hangs funny, or that one handle is missing from the drawer. Unless it is crucial to the story, leave that detail out.

Readers will fill in the missing blanks themselves. They will decide for them what the table actually looks like. They can make it any color or style they want. As long as you provide the table, let the reader decide the exact look of it.

Continue this process for the entire scene. By removing the details first and adding them back, sparingly, as you go, you will have less chance of overwhelming your audience with too many details.

Hire an Editor

Another “sure-fire” method is to hire a professional literary editor to go through your entire story. Not only will you get the proof-reading and feedback, but you will also get line-by-line criticism about the story, scenes and plots.

This can be a costly venture for those of you just starting out, but if you want a novel that will sell and appeal to agents and publishers it is a needed step. Most editors will charge by the word or by the project and prices will vary. Expect, though, to cough up about $1000 to $3000 for an entire novel.

The information you receive in return, though, is invaluable and will help you slim down the details while making your story a better read.

Find Out More

Later this week there will be the newsletter to further expand on this topic. We will cover more methods of finding the perfect balance of details and give you a homework assignment to test out your own ideas.

If you already have a method that works for you, let us all know about it in the comments section below.

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