Every novelist has heard the mantra from Day 1. “Good writing is rich with detail.” And this is true.
But indiscriminate, exhaustive attention to every possible detail is like an overdose of sugar: too much of a good thing. The reader experiences a confused frenzy of images, then nods out.
What’s missing from the mantra is how to make richness of detail be all that it should be, and for that you need to know 3 things:
- When to lay in detail
- Where to lay in detail
- When NOT to lay in detail
After years and years of slathering the detail around and NOT being told why it wasn’t working, I figured it out for myself and came up with a simple rule of thumb that works for me.
Employ rich detail at moments of emotion. When there is no emotional significance, keep your detail to a minimum. Show what you need to and keep moving.
Here I’ve written a snatch of a scene that does it the WRONG WAY:
Bobby stormed in, straight through the front door, down the hall and in to the kitchen. He was a man possessed. As he crossed the kitchen floor, his eyes burned, his nostrils flared, his hair spilled crazily across his forehead, and his breathing resounded like a spring zephyr.
Halting at the table he fixed his gaze on Jennifer, and the room seemed suddenly so quiet it was hard to believe a sound had ever been heard in it.
“Will you…?” he broke off, his face imploring her, his words overcome by heavy breathing.
“Yes,” she said.
Then she cooked the best meal ever, and the evening was so much fun neither one of them wanted it ever to end.
Do you see the problem? A ton of fanciful detail is wasted on Bobby’s entry into the kitchen. Jennifer, who has been waiting “so long” for this moment, gets next to none–only a summary statement of her hunch. Then Bobby pops the question. And…
“Okay” is all we get.
No iconic image of the moment, nothing to indicate what would surely be deep feeling––a palpatating heart, a quick surge of warmth to her skin––no tremble in her voice, no few halting words, no deep glow warming her gaze. Only: “Okay.”
Okay? And nothing else? Give me a break.
The blunder could easily have been avoided by referring to my rule of thumb. To do it right, simply ask: where is the emotion concentrated in this scene? Bobby displays excitement, and a kind of blustering determination–he’s going to ask that question, darn it. But the almost overwhelming emotion has got to be in Jennifer’s reaction. The girl is being proposed to–and after waiting and waiting for it.
It’s that easy. Having asked the right question and arrived at the correct conclusion, you now know where to concentrate the richness of detail.