Too Much Detail

Readers don’t always need specific descriptions.

by Andy Scheer

In my most recent fiction critique, I told the author he sometimes provided descriptions that were too detailed.

What was wrong with them? They provided information a reader could supply on her own.

Unlike films, books have the opportunity to enlist readers as an active participant. Authors offer enough to trigger a reader’s imagination, and she fills in the rest.

True, one reader’s version might differ in the details — an ash tree instead of a beech. But if it’s not vital to scene, that doesn’t matter. By leaving something for them to supply, you’ve allowed them to engage more deeply, in effect as your co-writer.

So I suggested as this novelist set this scene at a British manor house, he dial back a few details. By cutting some aspects a reader would assume, he could also take her more quickly to what’s important. See if you agree with these cuts.

The great house brooded over a broad valley surrounded by wooded hills. Red-brown cattle spotted the green meadows in the distance.

Patricia always felt a sense of home-coming when she arrived at Fletchley Park, but today even that was gone. She didn’t notice the beeches she loved lining the long gravel drive, nor the perfect proportions of the grey stone, Jacobean frontage with a dozen chimneys biting the sky.

Why cut that sentence? Two reasons. First, it fits exactly how I’d picture Fletchley Park. But more important, it’s a point of view violation. If we’re experiencing the scene through Patricia’s senses, it’s an intrusion to report what she doesn’t notice.

The housekeeper, Fiona, a dumpy woman of indeterminate age, let her into the great hall. ‘Mr Cornwell is on the telephone. He’ll no’ be a minute.’

Why cut that about Fiona? Since the housekeeper won’t figure large in the story, there’s no need to provide those details — especially when they track with how readers would likely picture her.

What details should you provide? Any the reader needs to appreciate what’s significant. In this novel’s opening, the author described a Mediterranean midday sky as “azure.” Why cut that? It’s what readers would expect. Now if the sky had been green …

About Andy Scheer

With more than 30 years in publishing, Andy Scheer has provided freelance editorial services since 2010. He has edited fiction and nonfiction for publishers including Moody, WinePress, and BelieversPress, as well as for clients including Dirk Cussler, McNair Wilson, DiAnn Mills, Heather Day Gilbert, and Sammy Tippit.

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