What Details to Use in Fiction

Egbert van der Poel – “Barnyard Scene (detail)” (1658)

Introduction

So you’re writing a story and it’s good.

But your early readers are saying, “This story feels really thin” or “I liked the story but I had a hard time getting into it” or “there were parts where I was confused.”

There are a few different areas where things might be going wrong, but one of the areas you might not be checking is whether or not you have rushed past important details.

Missing details can make a story feel really thin. They can prevent the reader from being able to visualize or imagine your story. And they can leave the reader confused about where the characters are, who the characters are, and what’s going on—particularly during arguments and action scenes.

Details connect reader to your story! You can have the greatest, most inventive world and plot designed in your head, but if you don’t show the reader the details of how it works and where everything is, that’s where the world will stay: in your head!

Writers generally have three main questions about details:

  • WHAT details should I use in fiction?
  • WHERE should I put the details?
  • HOW can I add the details?

(This is a lot of ground to cover in one article, so I’ll have to expand on this later!)

The short answer to all three questions is “it depends.” But fortunately, there are some general rules of thumb you can follow to get the job done most of the time—unless you come up with a better solution that works for that particular story, of course!

What details should I add?

The types of details you should add to your story will vary, usually by genre and subgenre. Genres and subgenres exist to give readers broader or narrower categories to pick from. It’s like picking a restaurant. Someone who is looking for a fancy, exclusive restaurant for a special date probably won’t choose a fast-food place.

So consider what types of details are usually found in your genre. A science-fiction story will have more details about the setting and how things work than a romance novel will; the romance novel will have a lot of emotional and relationship details from the characters, and will be a touch gossipy about other characters.

However, just because a genre doesn’t prioritize certain types of details doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use them in your story!

For example, a romance in a science-fiction setting should use both types of details, that is, lots of science-fiction details and lots of romance details—more romance-related details if you’re marketing the book as a romance, and more science-fiction-related details if you’re marketing the book as science fiction. If you’re using an subplot commonly found in one type of genre, then using the details that readers like in that genre can be really useful, too.

But you should also keep an eye out that you have at least a bare minimum of each type of detail in your story. A science fiction story might need to focus on setting details…but it should also include emotional details. If your story doesn’t include any emotional details, the importance of the events of your story may not be clear: readers often take cues on what is or is not important in a story based on how the characters react. If your reader doesn’t clearly and immediately know what is or is not important, then they may not be sure how to feel about it.

For example, imagine if the grandson in the movie version of The Princess Bride never interrupted his grandfather with an emotional outburst—the story wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining!

Categories of details to get you thinking:

  • Details about setting. Sense details. Descriptions of the settings including landmarks and relative locations (“near the castle” “near Hollywood and Vine”). Descriptions of what has special meaning in the setting. Descriptions of common objects found in that setting. Details that explore a setting, for example, taking the characters on a tour, also taking the characters to the “backstage” area of the setting or otherwise “off the beaten path.”
  • Details about how things work. How to perform a task, like repairing a bicycle. How everyday tasks involved in a job are done; what the daily routines look like. How a magic system works. How a political system works. How a business or industry as a whole works.
  • Character details. What your main character looks like, in general, but more importantly, the impression they make on the people around them. How your character tends to behave in situations that are normal for them. How your character reacts in a crisis. What your character’s daily routine is like. Their habits. Who is doing the action or dialogue in an action or dialogue scene!
  • Emotional details. How your characters feel. Your characters’ opinions about and reactions to the other elements of the story. What internal conflicts the character is experiencing. Hints about what the character is ignoring and why.
  • Gossip & News.  What one character says about another. Contemporary events not necessarily related to the plot. Rumors, lies. Propaganda. Trends, fashions.
  • Backstory. Character backstory; particularly two characters who have a past history. World history. Local history. How a place, trend, technology, etc., has changed over time.

Bare minimum checklist for fictional details:

  • Please note that no details on the cover, story description, chapter titles, or other preliminary information count as fictional details—only details provided in your actual fiction.
  • And remember you can break a “rule” any time you can make the reader happier by doing so!
  • Setting: Have you described the current setting within the first 2-3 sentences of every scene and every change of scene? Have you described every character’s location before any action or dialogue in every scene and after every change or scene or entrance of a new character?
  • How things work: Have you described any sets of rules or beliefs or any assumptions before those assumptions come into play in the story? Have you described at least the main character’s daily routine and how they do their job?
  • Character details: Have you described the impression the main character makes upon the world, including any details about their appearance or behavior that provides evidence of that impression? Does every action or line of dialog clearly belong to a particular character? Or do they sound the same?
  • Emotional details: Does at least your main character react with an emotion or opinion in every conflict, either internally or by external actions that “speak louder than words”?
  • Gossip & News: Have you hinted at all events that come up during the course of the story?
  • Backstory:  Have you given backstory about all character actions, conflicts, opinions and emotions outside your story’s norms?

I strongly advise you not to hide details. Suspense is not created by hiding details, but by asking questions…

…and then not answering them.

And don’t worry about spoiling clues if you tell the reader all the details. Share the details! Just don’t explain to the reader what they mean, or have one of the characters state an opinion about that details that is completely wrong. There’s a reason that Sherlock Holmes is always asking Watson what he thinks about a case: to deceive the reader! Even though you know Watson’s theories must be wrong, it becomes just a little harder to think about anything else, once he’s stated them.

Where should I put the details?

In general, put the details in the beginning of whatever scene they first become important, unless the detail occurs or is only just noticed during the course of the scene.

For example, in a mystery, you would describe the scene of the crime in general at the beginning of the scene, as the characters enter the scene—then add specific details about clues as the characters discover them.

For emotional details, give the character’s general state of mind at the beginning of the scene (“It was 8 a.m. and I glared at the sun for rising before I’d had a chance to sleep”), but add any change in their opinions or emotions as they occur.

And so on, with all the types of details!

The exception: fast-paced scenes

Scenes with arguments or action are almost always fast-paced scenes; in order to preserve the speed of the action or dialogue, it may be necessary for the characters to speed through the scene quickly, and then take a moment afterward to think about what happened and recover—just as they would in real life.

It’s almost never a good idea to have a lengthy tangent—that is, more than a short sentence—during the middle of an action scene or argument.

When a reader reads about intense action or arguments, they should be excited. When a reader reads about emotion, opinion, or observation of a scene, they should be calmer, in a more relaxed mode. You want your readers to be in “fight or flight” mode when they read about action or an intense argument; you want them to be in a calmer “de-stress” mode when they read slower scenes.

Alternating action and description means your reader has to switch between intense and non-intense modes of reading from paragraph to paragraph.

And that’s exhausting!

Move your descriptions either before or after the scene. Often, you can mention the character’s reactions and opinions briefly during the conflict, then cover them in more depth after the scene is over.

How can I add the details?

There are only two “rules” here:

  • The details can only be observed or encountered by the point of view character, and must be flavored with a strong opinion.
  • The details can be reported by another character, but must also be flavored with a strong opinion by the point of view character.

If you have a narrator, then the narrator is your point of view character, and you must flavor the details of the scene with their strong opinion.

A strong character opinion can be based in:

  • Beliefs
  • Biases
  • Prejudices
  • Preferences
  • Background (for example, having gone to boarding school or having PTSD)
  • Limitations (physical, mental, or emotional)
  • Self-deceptions
  • Intent to deceive the reader (in case of a narrator)
  • And lots, lots more!

It can by handy to “design” a character by starting with some sort of chip on their shoulder about something. Having the character react emotionally rather than objectively to any given detail will make that detail come alive—and prevent boring descriptions.

Any time you can find a way for your character to be both consistent and, well, wrong, it’s probably a good thing!

Putting it all together!

When you’re writing, don’t think about all this.

These tips are for scenes that aren’t working, not for scenes that are. And there’s no reason to fix something that isn’t broken!

If you feel that your stories are consistently a bit thin on the details, then you might want to set yourself a goal to work on adding more details. But otherwise, don’t worry about this stuff unless your scenes aren’t pulling readers through your story and keeping them up at night!

Some scenes don’t need a lot of detail.

But, in general, they do.

Editing checklist

  • Do this after your first draft is done!
  • Figure out the two most important types of detail for your genre. Make sure to narrow this down for your subgenre and any cross-genre plotlines or settings. (My best guess is setting then how stuff works for science fiction/fantasy/historical, how things work then setting for mystery and western, and emotional details then backstory for romance and horror.)
  • If the point of view character moves to a new setting, consider that a new scene.
  • Start each scene with a description of the time and place, and how that time and place are related to previous scenes in the story, strongly colored by the point of view character’s opinion. (“Two oppressively dull weeks later…”)
  • Start each scene with a description of who is in that scene, and where they are relative to each other and/or to important parts of the setting, strongly colored by the point of view character’s opinion. (“Seated at the table next to Matt was an idiot named…”)
  • Check that each action and each line of dialog is clearly labeled with who is doing it. (Bonus tip: start lines of dialogue with an action that shows the reader a detail about the scene, such as a character sniffing flowers or making a particularly repulsed face when another character’s name is mentioned.)
  • Check that all non-dialogue and non-action in an intense action or argument scene is moved elsewhere—usually after the scene is done.
  • Check that each scene includes the top two types of detail that you figured out earlier!

Finally, if you’re not sure whether to include a detail or not, include it! The things you might thing are boring are usually details that you take for granted, but that the reader is simply drooling to find out!

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