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Necessary Detail

June 20, 2018

One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to decide which details to include in a scene. For the most part, you can’t simply include every single possible detail in each scene. It simply isn’t feasible. Not only would the reader probably get bored but your story would also become obnoxiously long. Instead, you need to focus on necessary details.

But what does ‘necessary’ mean? One way to think about it is to consider the following points:

  • Plot
  • Characters
  • Setting

If something is relevant to the plot, characters, or setting, then including it is probably a good idea.

Let’s start with details related to the plot. Although readers often like to be surprised, they do not usually enjoy being completely directionless. If a detail is relevant to the plot, then it is often best to include it. You don’t have to spoil any surprises by being too obvious about it. You can be subtle. For instance, if you’re writing a mystery novel where the murder weapon is a spoon, you could include a small mention of a spoon on the dining table or in the sink. That’s all. Yet just including that small mention will prevent the reader from feeling as though they’re being blindsided when the truth is revealed.

Details that help build up the characterisation of a character are also good to include. You might think that a two-page-long description of a character’s wardrobe and haircut might be going overboard, but such a description could be perfect for portraying a character who pays an obsessive level of attention to their appearance. What you describe isn’t the only important thing. How you describe it is important. Including the minutiae of a seemingly normal hairstyle only adds to the feeling of obsessiveness.

Another instance in which including plenty of details can help is when it comes to fleshing out the setting for a story. If you’re writing a story set in a very well known place, you can probably avoid going into extreme detail. However, if you’ve invented a brand-new world that is utterly alien and different from the real world, then going into detail about it will increase how immersive it feels to the reader. For example, just saying that there is a world full of volcanoes and deserts is one thing, adding rich descriptions of the plant life, animals, and terrain really makes the setting come to life in a way that a briefer description might not.

When it comes to deciding which details you should include in a scene, it pays to ask yourself ‘what are these details doing?’. If adding more details can add to the plot, the characters, on the setting, then it may very well be worthwhile to include those extra details. However, if you’re simply going into greater detail to pad out of the word count, then you are likely better off adopting a more concise approach.

If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, education, and other subjects, you can find those here.

I also write original fiction, which you can find here.

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