I went – as an experiment – to an evening of readings at a local writers club. The first person to read was an older man – an experienced writer, not a newbie. Thirty-seconds into his story I was wishing I had stayed home. Cleaning the bathroom, watching rerun movies, writing to an aunt – anything would have been better than this.
I almost left, but I’m glad I didn’t because later readers were much better. I enjoyed their stories.
But the funny thing is – I learned more from the first reader than from the others. The later stories were maybe not perfect but they were interesting enough to cover a few flaws.
Alas! Reader Number One did not have a good story. It was boring. and without a good story flaws leapt out like goblins at Hallowe’en. His one major weakness lay in the details. Too much and the wrong ones.
New writers ask, “How much detail is enough? When is it too much?”
Like I have an answer! “Ten details per page is maximum,” I’d love to say definitively. “By-law Number 136, Section 17, sub-section 14.3 expressly forbids more than ten details per page.”
Believe me, I wish I’d had a banner to wave at this man “No more details!”
My own rule is – every detail must contribute something to the story. No padding. No wandering on because you think you are producing beautiful prose. No stating the obvious.
(The grass was green, the sky was blue. No kidding!
Her kitchen was as neat as a pin. – I hate her already and the cliche didn’t help.)
The writer needs to have an eye for something unique, something that seems out of place, something worth mentioning. A young girl in an office downtown with black nail polish and a nose ring is not unusual. A middle aged lady in a fundamentalist church in a rural community wearing a nose ring and black nails – that’s a detail worth mentioning.
This reader was describing a visit to a country few of us have visited. We were waiting for the unusual, the unexpected . It was interesting to know that the lowland was forested, but with tall green trees? Really?
In the higher, desert areas there was a lot of sand. Day after day, more sand.
I’ve been to deserts. I’ve seen odd little plants nestling out of the wind, strange wildlife from bugs to alpacas. I’ve felt the savage desert winds and sand that slashes at your legs.
Use detail to bring your story alive, to give the feeling of a place unique and fascinating. Even the neat-as-a-pin kitchen might have a beat up old kettle on the stove, a dog dish but no sign of a dog.
Use detail for dimension and immediacy. Use it to give your story and your character depth and life. It’s like spice in cooking. You only need a touch, here and there – but it has to be chosen wisely.
If you promise to use detail only for these purposes I will permit you to have more than ten details per page.