Are you piquing readers’ interest just enough, or drowning them in detail?
In storytelling, description and detail translate what’s in your imagination into scenes and images in the reader’s mind. Can bloated description detract from your work, fill your reader’s brain with too much information, and distract them from the story? The answer is yes. In today’s post we’ll look at how to know when enough is enough.
From Terse to Turgid
Every author has a distinct style they cultivate over years of writing, called a voice. For example, Ernest Hemingway was known for short, declarative sentences devoid of flowery description. One of his most famous stories is this seemingly simple six-word story:
For sale: baby shoes, never worn.
Immediately, your imagination takes over, filling in the backstory behind this sad tale.
The town was glad with morning light; places that had shown ugly and distrustful all night long, now wore a smile; and sparkling sunbeams dancing on chamber windows, and twinkling through blind and curtain before sleepers’ eyes, shed light even into dreams, and chased away the shadows of the night. Birds in hot rooms, covered up close and dark, felt it was morning, and chafed and grew restless in their little cells; bright-eyed mice crept back to their tiny homes and nestled timidly together; the sleek house-cat, forgetful of her prey, sat winking at the rays of sun starting through keyhole and cranny in the door, and longed for her stealthy run and warm sleek bask outside.
That Hallowed Middle Ground
Which style you like best is a matter of personal preference, of course, though one might argue that Dickens’ description of the town is prescriptive — he leaves nothing to your imagination. Regardless of how you feel about either of those authors and their styles, there is something to be said for finding that hallowed middle ground: enough description to fertilize your reader’s mind so that the story thrives in their imagination.
When it comes to detail and description, Canadian author Lisa Moore advocates giving the reader control:
The strongest fiction, for me as a reader, is that which allows me to create it in my head and, as a writer, I like to give the reader as much control as possible — I think that’s where the real pleasure lies.
She suggests that stories shift their shape, morphing depending on the reader and their experiences:
Stories never belong to the author who happens to write them down, they are also the creation of each individual reader….I sometimes imagine stories and novels are like the transparent film of soap that coats a child’s bubble wand — and the breath that blows it into a bubble, is the breath of the reader. The reader’s imagination gives a story shape and substance. It is a private and secret bubble of experience belonging solely to the reader, lasting for as long as the reading of the book last, ending with the turn of the final page, when the bubble bursts, and the ‘real’ world becomes solid again.
Ideas to Consider
Despite the fact that developing a voice is a very personal matter, here are a few things you can do to strengthen your writing:
- Beware of redundancies. Consider these redundancies: “a cacophony of sound,” “combine together,” and “commute back and forth.” Examine each word you use. Omit needless words.
- Be choosy about verbs. Did someone throw you the ball or did they hurl, fling, or toss it? In a general sense, each verb conveys the fact that the ball traveled toward you, though hurl, fling, and toss connote the effort the thrower used, which adds depth and lends an emotional quality to the sentence that “throw” lacks.
- Have a trusted friend read your work. Ask them which questions ran through their mind as they read your piece. Were they sure of the location? Were they certain which character was doing the talking? A trusted reader can offer invaluable feedback on where you need to bolster your descriptions to aid the reader’s comprehension and where you might prune wordy passages.
No matter your voice or your personal prose preferences, the next time you’re writing a new piece or editing something you’ve already written, consider whether or not you’re allowing the reader the freedom to create a vivid picture in their mind, or whether you’re doing their job for them — knowing that the best works are a collaboration between writer and reader.