Writing Tips by Gary Speer

Tips for writers, musing about writing and life

How much detail is too much detail when you write a scene or describe a character?

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Even though I believe in the old adage that your writing should always “show, not tell,” if you are writing a fiction scene or describing a character, there are some things you simply have to tell in some detail — or leave them out entirely. That “leave them out entirely” is often the better option. For example, I’m a huge Robert B. Parker fan. I’ve read all of his Spenser novels and most of his other stuff. Even though I’ve read them all, enjoyed them all, and really wish I was that good as a writer, I cannot stand the way he goes to such lengths in almost every scene to describe the clothes his characters are wearing.

By contrast, look at the novels Larry Block writes. His Matthew Scudder novels and “Burgler Who …” novels focus on character, on action, on just about everything except the clothes the characters wear. Or at least, if he does describe clothing, he makes no big deal about it. Maybe it just haven’t been paying enough attention reading Block, but I certainly am distracted by the issue when reading Parker.

So how much detail is enough detail? If I’m writing about a computer room or about a company’s networked computers, do I really need to describe the cables they use to network their computers as CAT6? Or can I simply call that “cable” and move on?

Here’s my quick rule of thumb on the whole issue of using details: If they’re important to the story or the character, elaborate. If they aren’t, just use “brown suit” or “network cable” and move on. In the end, though, only you can decide the level of detail that’s important to your story or your characters.

So be bold. They ARE your story and your characters, not mine or anyone else’s. Do exactly what you want with the little devils. You can — and probably should — always rewrite if it doesn’t work.

What are your guidelines? Tell us, please, how you handle details and narrative in your writing.
[tags]fiction writing, using narrative, writing the details, writing tips at garyspeer.com[/tags]

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