A Pot of Details

As someone who is decidedly not detail-oriented, I sometimes struggle with getting the right kind of detail into the story.  On a first draft, that’s especially a challenge because sometimes putting in a detail in Chapter 2 suddenly unveils itself as being important in Chapter 14 and zooms to major story status where it needs to be developed more.  Others end up being, well, clutter.  The omniscient viewpoint narrator (OPOV) presents even more special needs because that narrator is not limited by what it can see.

To clarify, details mean anything small piece of information.  Sometimes when I say details, everyone automatically thinks of description.  It could also mean world-building/setting, backstory, characters, etc.  Those may not seem like details to everyone, but to someone who isn’t detail-oriented, they present special challenges of what to include and what not to include.

One of the major culprits is description, and not because it’s description, but how we’re taught to do description.    A teacher or website gives us an exercise to describe a forest and make sure we include as many of the senses as possible.    Maybe they provide a picture to get us started.  So it’s easy to focus on getting the picture “right,” mentioning colors and shapes and senses–without ever touching on what actually is imp0rtant to the story in that description.

So some general guidelines for dealing with details:

There has to be a reason it’s in the story. Spending a lot of wordage describing in loving detail a plane taking off when it’s a transition scene are details that can be dropped.  On the other hand, if the plane is going to crash a few scenes later and put your character into jeopardy, then mentioning a shape crawling on the wing is a great foreshadowing (sorry, I couldn’t resist).

Use details to emphasis anything you want to draw attention to in a subtle way. In omniscient viewpoint, you might have not yet revealed your main character, but your narrator can take a moment to mention the man in the “striped shirt,” to highlight your main character.

Weigh in on the importance of the detail. If you spend a paragraph paying attention to something, it better be pretty important in the story.  Ask yourself if it’s fulfilling a second function.  This one might take a second review because it can be hard to tell during the first draft what’s important, so check in on it again during the revision.

Watch out for too much detail digging. This is surprisingly easy for people who aren’t good with details, because we can’t always tell when to stop.   Suppose you’re writing along and need to put in a tree.  Now you hop up, hunt through all your reference books searching for a name of a tree in the appropriate location.  Maybe it takes 10 minutes.  A little while later, you have to grab another book to look something else up.  That takes 15 minutes because the fact is hard to find.  Then you stumble over needing a specific jargon term that most people outside of an industry will have never heard and spend 30 minutes searching the internet … Stop.  It’s your first draft.  Just put in RESEARCH.  If the sentence or scene stays in the book, you can research it during the revision.   On the other hand, you may look at the one where you were digging for that obscure detail and wonder why you bothered.

Working with details in a novel can be a special challenge if you’re not detail-oriented.  But it can be done.  It just takes a bit of effor to think differently to work within what your strengths are.