We writers know details are important. We are urged to write vivid and memorable descriptions by using specific details and utilizing all five senses to bring the story to life.
Good advice, so long as those details belong in the story.
But what if they don’t?
Too many details can overload a reader’s brain. As Lisa Cron explains in Wired for Story,
“Myth: Sensory details bring a story to life.
Reality: Unless they convey necessary information, sensory details clog a story’s arteries.”
In real life our brains filter out most of the input our senses take in. In a story, the reader assumes you have done the filtering for them, therefore all details are important. Pad the story with extra details and the reader will become annoyed.
If my story is set on a tropical island, I may be tempted to describe the lush flowers and stunning sunsets. But do those details convey necessary information? Perhaps the sunset provides a vital time clue. Or the flowers trigger an important memory in the hero. However, if those flowers add nothing useful for understanding characters or plot, they may confuse the reader or obscure details that actually are important.
Misused details, especially vivid ones, can sabotage a story. This is an easy trap to fall into. In my experience, it goes like this…
I’m in the middle of a scene and the character is running down the street. For some reason I toss in the fact that he is wearing athletic shoes with neon-pink laces. No time to ponder that interesting detail because the words are flowing, so on I type.
Everything is fine until a few scenes later, when the character is with his ex-marine friend. At this point I realize the buddy will react to those pink laces. A guy like that wouldn’t let them slide.
This is where I must ask myself whether the pink laces are important or distracting. Maybe the laces show us something about the character, so his explanation to his buddy will add to the overall story. Then again, the pink laces may take the story down a bunny trail. In which case, the pink laces must go.
Alternately, I need to spice up the setting, so I add the first thing that comes to mind: the flowerbeds of house next door are filled with cacti.
Wonderfully vivid, right? But the reader will assume those cacti are important, and read on expecting them to play into the story. If those cacti don’t show up somewhere, readers will get annoyed, or feel less than satisfied at the end of the book.
The bottom line
Don’t be afraid to write with creative abandon, but remember to stop and analyze your details afterwards. Are they deepening the story, or derailing it? Adding clarity or bogging things down?
Choose your details wisely.
Need more help? Read Lisa Cron’s post on which details enhance a story.
Lisa E. Betz lives in an empty nest perched on a wooded Lancaster County hillside, along with a sensible husband and a mischievous kitten. When not writing, she can be found teaching Bible studies, volunteering at the local library, or dreaming about ancient Rome. You can connect with her through Facebook, Twitter and her website, lisaebetz.com. Lisa writes historical fiction, and is represented by Cyle Young of Hartline Literary Agency.