Below is what I like to think of as my Editor’s Prayer ~


There are so many ways that an author can blow it, even the best authors, never mind me. But since you don’t want to sit here counting the ways, I’m only going to talk about one – putting too many details in the narrative.

This is related to the infamous Information Dump. The classic Information Dump is about the characters or plot, and involves things like backstory or explanation. Too Many Details, however, is a dump in the areas of setting and description.

First let me admit that what I say here won’t apply to every reader. There are lots of readers out there who love a rich narrative – but most of them are reading novels that are at least 100 years old. The average reader wants to continue being engaged in the story itself, not spend their time having their imaginations curbed by excessive description.

Readers have wonderful imaginations. Their heads are full of images as well as emotions. You have to trust your reader to fill in the gaps for you. Because, news flash, they’re going to do it anyway. So don’t give them a guided tour, just hit the highlights and let them find their own way.

Example 1: Too Many Details about a person

Your Main Character has just entered the story for the first time. You craft paragraphs of well written description to let the reader get to know him, from the way his hair curls all the way down to his shoelaces. You mention every feature of his face, every article of clothing on his body, every tic and trick of his movements. This, you think, will make the MC appear in your reader’s mind just as you’ve imagined him.

Wrong. The reader might read every word, but two pages later, she’ll have forgotten 90% of it. Despite your efforts, she will pick one or two or possibly three details that resonate with her, and she’ll use those to create a picture of your MC in her mind. That’s the picture that will stick, and believe me, it’s not going to be the same person you picture.

The fix? Focus on a few defining traits, things that are important to understanding your MC, not visualizing him. If you have too many important traits, begin with a couple of them, then introduce others later in the story, as he’s interacting with the other characters. For example, his piercing blue eyes might be a good detail, but if he’s compulsively neat, show him a few pages later picking up after someone else.

Example 2: Too Many Details about the setting

You have a wonderful setting for your scene. Perhaps it’s a mansion, or a colorful garden, or a spooky forest, or an exotic location. I know that it’s tempting to share all the wonders of this landscape with your reader. So you describe it in detail. In the mansion, you go through each room, or every piece of furniture in one room. In the garden or the forest, you name every plant. In the exotic location, you show off your knowledge of the history, geography, and tourist attractions. That way your reader can live in the world you’re creating.

Wrong. The reader can’t possibly keep all that information in her head. She may read every word, but again, two pages later she’ll have forgotten most of it. In her imagination is an image of a mansion, garden, forest, or exotic place, and she’ll pick up on a few details that resonate with her own experience and visualize her own setting.

The fix? First, don’t jettison all description. You have to orient your reader to your setting. But you can accomplish this with two or three sentences. Beyond that, ruthlessly cut all details that you don’t need. If there’s a beautifully crafted table in the mansion, or a gorgeous rose arbor in the garden, don’t mention them unless a plot point hinges on it.

If you feel you truly need more detail, you’re probably right, so I’m going to add one more hint to this post, a way to add detail without being boring.

Engage the characters in the description

Don’t make a list of details. Use your POV character instead. Let him see and react to the details you want to keep. If you’re in an exotic location, let something about the place stir up a memory for him of home or another place he’s traveled to. If you’re still in that mansion with that table, make him react to the craftsmanship because of some hobby of his own. If you’re in the forest, let him observe the oaks and ponder how much he dislikes raking leaves.

Use your characters to bring your reader into your setting. The trip will be more enjoyable and memorable for them, and they won’t start skimming the page looking for dialog.