Jul 312014
 
How much detail brush strokes

Just like paint brush selection effects artwork, how much detail you include in your story changes how readers digest it.

Writing with Detail versus Boring Your Audience

How do you find the balance of writing with detail versus boring your audience? How do you know how much detail is too much? Think about the following:

How Much Detail Works for Your Purpose

You can really answer the question of how much detail is too much unless you define your purpose. Education, for instance, has a different bar than entertainment. Memoir writers often see advice like this (from Anne R. Allen in How to Write a Publishable Memoir: 12 Do’s and Don’ts): “…Your happy memories of that idyllic Sunday school picnic in vanished small-town America will leave your reader comatose unless the church caught fire, you lost your virginity, and/or somebody stole the parson’s pants.”

The bar is much lower if

  • You’re not trying to pen a bestseller (Coming soon: What to do if you are!)
  • You’re not trying to pitch an agent to represent you
  • You’re writing for people who love you

Most of us wouldn’t be bored reading that our grandmother enjoyed Sunday school picnics. We’d enjoy imagining her proudly contributing her baked beans or fried chicken. (There’s much more about this in my book. Also see Why Writing for Your Family Is Like ….)

Who are you writing for? If you have the dual purpose of writing for yourself and others, you might want to include details that might be less than riveting reading for others. For instance, in her travel journals, my mother wrote about things that I skim over, such as what she had for breakfast each day. I still enjoy reading about her travels.

Why Details Matter

Leo Widrich’s What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains has some great insight. Details can stimulate readers’ imaginations or connect them to stories of their own. A great story stimulates various areas of the brain. (Boring details only stimulate the centers for understanding language.)

How You Present Details Matters

How much detail? Too Much!

How much detail? If you’re presenting facts–not telling a story–it’s too much!

Word choice can change the mundane to enchanting or scrumptious. Was the coffee strong or was it so strong that it got up and walked over to you itself, no wait-staff needed? When you infuse your personality into details, it enhances the story.

Connecting details to the story prevents them from seeming extraneous. Perhaps their incongruence itself is poignant. Perhaps your attention to superfluous details was how you coped. For instance, during an assault, I remember thinking that I hoped the necklace my mother gave me wouldn’t get broken. That detail illustrates my mental state.

Which is better: Too much detail or not enough

Are your details bringing the story to life or putting the reader to sleep? Are your details complicating the story, making it hard to understand the point? Widrich’s article spells that out in terms of cognition:

“ Why does the format of a story, where events unfold one after the other have such a profound impact on our learning?

The simple answer is this: We are wired that way. A story, if broken down into the simplest form is a connection of cause and effect. And that is exactly how we think.”

In other words, whenever your details are making the story clearer, include them.

Matching Your Writing to Your Personality

In my opinion, you have to be true to yourself. If you normally throw a ton of asides in your verbal narratives, be careful of over-editing yourself. Nevertheless, do edit.

When Details are Disturbing

That’s another post! Stay tuned.

Your Turn:

How did you determine how much detail to include in your story? When have you struggled with this?