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More Detail, Please

August 10, 2010

Two weeks ago I offered the advice that when it comes to detail and setting, it’s easy to give the reader too much detail, and that writers could generally err on the side of too little detail, rather than going overboard. But now I’m going to contradict myself a little.

Several years ago I helped non-profits boost their fund-raising. The company sent a very detailed letter—usually about 3 pages—to prospective donors. We knew that very few people would read the entire letter. But it was constructed so that reading the first paragraph communicated a very brief pitch for donations. By the end of the first page the reader had the philosophy of the pitch but few details. But by the end of the third page they had the full sales pitch, with case studies an all. The idea was that no matter where the reader stopped, they got the basic plea for support, but we let them choose how much information they wanted.

When we write, the same logic can be applied to great effect.

Think back to your favorite stories. Novels, shorts or flash fiction won’t make much difference—TV shows and movies will work just as well. When you read them the second time, you got something out of them that you hadn’t the first time, didn’t you? And the third time? In fact, you probably kept reading over the years until you stopped discovering more detail. Maybe it was metaphor; maybe it was plot twists, or subtle sub-plots; maybe it was that you learned more about the characters.

The first time I watched The Usual Suspects I immediately watched it again—because I knew that I’d missed a lot of detail, and I wondered if it would make the story better. I had, and it did. I’ve read To Say Nothing of the Dog a half dozen times, and each time through I discover little hidden sub-plots that I’d never noticed.

When I write a story I naturally build in this layering as I rewrite—for no other reason than it keeps me entertained. Though I’m a writer, I was a reader first—and by the fifth draft I’ve already read my own story a dozen times—at least. If I didn’t add in little hidden jokes and odd references, I’d get bored. But this layering of plot and meaning had the added advantage of making the world and story you’re creating more vibrant, more interesting…more complete.

2 weeks ago I mentioned there was a particular female character from a favorite book about whom I had a vivid mental picture, even though the author never gave much in the way of detail. Laura Rachel Fox was curious to know who the character was. Her name is Verity, and she appears in Connie Willis’ To Say Nothing of the Dog.
  1. August 10, 2010 8:14 am

    Thanks for satisfying my curiosity.

    I know exactly what you mean about going back to a work and finding new details. Some of my most favorite pieces have those little nuances that are hard to spot on a first read/watch.

    Details like these will enrich a work and seem to give the reader a personal investment in a story. I love the feeling I get when I discover a secret: some easter egg that I’m sure that not everyone picked up on.

  2. August 10, 2010 11:01 am

    I have two fears about that level of detail, Dale. First, am I making the plot too complicated? Second, will my reader see those microplots as loose ends I didn’t finish?

    I gather that doesn’t concern you? Thanks for the post.

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