How much detail is too much is subjective and it depends on your writing style. However, thinking about the following can help you determine if your details are serving your story and your readers well, or if they’re, well you know, um, boring folks.
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
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, that’s a good thing. As long as they aren’t making it boring, 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.
How did you determine how much detail to include in your story? When have you struggled with this?