Updated: Nov 17, 2020
Let's take a moment to discuss details. What do we mean when we say details? Well, details are the tools that help paint a picture for your reader.
For example: "I walked out of the extravagant, gold, tower-like casino and took a deep breath of the brisk night air that frequently accompanied spring season. The breeze carried a potent scent of assorted vegetables sautéed in butter and the soft hum of hoverports overhead. In all my years living in Crete, I still felt like a tourist, just with a different perspective. Even I couldn’t help marvel at the sheer height of every building. Sometimes I thought I stood in a maze of glass mountains covered with neon signs." ~ Elements: A Whisper of Wind
As opposed to this: "I walked out of the casino and took a deep breath of the brisk night air. The man will be the death of me, I swear."
Both passages were taken from the same chapter and the same place. The only difference is the imagery. As this happened to be the first chapter in the book, I needed to put the details in so the reader could paint a picture. From that point, I can leave some of the finer details to their imagination.
Take the reader gently by the hand to guide them into the world you've built, and then let them explore it independently.
Writing Just Enough
This is where that style thing I talked about earlier comes in. Some Authors love to put as much detail as possible to help everyone imagine precisely what they are seeing. Others don't. For me, too many details can bog a story down, while too little will hinder the reader from being completely immersed. So, how do we get the mixture down just right?
Short answer: you won't.
Everyone will have an opinion about how much detail to put into something. Some will say you elaborate in places that simply don't need to be described at such length (yes, this happened to me). On the other hand, others will tell you that you don't have enough detail. Frustrating right?
Okay, but how do we figure this out?
Give me a second to answer that. When I was dipping my feet into the professional writing realm, I joined a writer's group. I thought that my story was terrific and that others would too. I was wrong. Sure, the story was there, but it was buried under heaps and heaps of descriptions. My peers referred to it as "overwriting." Later I learned that writing tight and overwriting are just two different ways of saying, "you need to clean up your project."
Let's take a wordy sentence, for example: The male teacher took the front passenger seat, while another teacher sat behind the steering wheel, and drove the suburban four blocks north to the city library, circling the structure and entering through an underground parking lot.
This sentence needs to be tightened quite a bit. If the reader reads things as I do, they will get roughly to the word "steering" then enter what I call "Skim mode." The moment I enter skim mode is the moment that you've lost me. Most of the time, I'll have to go back and re-read the sentence just to make sure I got the full picture.
How, pray tell, would we tighten this sentence? We have a few options here, but I'll give you what I would do to help keep the reader's attention.
Mr. Dinklhoffensmiener sat in the passenger seat and looked to our driver, Mrs. Sheldon. "Ready when you are." Mrs. Sheldon nodded, then guided the suburban onto the barren main street. Randy always liked going to the library, as it held thousands of different adventures within its walls. Etc. Etc. (End scene)
So, now we've taken one long, grueling sentence and made multiple sentences with some dialogue mixed into the scene. We are accomplishing the same thing but breathing life into it.
That brings me back to our original question: How do we figure out how much detail to add, and where do we cut things to write tight?
You will learn what feedback is good feedback for your story and what feedback to ignore. That doesn't mean that you turn to the person and say, "You're stupid, and this comment is straight garbage." Instead, thank them for their feedback and silently cast it out. It's called being respectful. They took the time to offer a suggestion, thank them for the effort they put in. Thank them even if they offered no helpful tips because at least they took the time to read your work and offer thoughts.