From time to time the question arises from writers about how much detail and description to add to a story and how and when to insert it. This important topic is going to take at least two posts to do it even minimal justice.
When it comes to handling details and description in a story, no set of one-size-fits-all rules exists because so much depends on the type, length, and complexity of the story and the characters in it.
I can offer a couple of guidelines to follow:
(1) The reader needs certain information to be able to understand and be involved in the story. Don’t assume the reader can read your mind, and don’t force the reader to have to put too many pieces together to figure out what you’re trying to convey.
(2) Don’t interrupt the story to add details and description.
At first these two might seem contradictory, but they’re not. Stories can be complex beasts, and when they are novel length, they become even more complex.
Let me give you one of my favorite examples of the first guideline, one I’ve talked about before: first-person narratives.
In most cases, the reader wants to know something about the story’s narrator. Usually it’s the main character. When writing in third person, most authors will identify whoever the “he” or “she” character being talked about is. Sometimes you want to withhold the character’s name, perhaps even the character’s gender. But this is usually an exception.
However, first-person narratives present a different situation. There are still some cases where you want that “I” narrator to be a mystery. But, again, that’s usually an exception.
Consider this opening:
“My brothers always picked on me, being younger than them.”
What do we know about the narrator? All we know is that it’s the youngest sibling. But is it a male or female? We can’t be sure.
I’ll go one further. We don’t even know how old the narrator is. Is the story being told in the present when they’re all kids, or from later in life as an adult reflecting on a childhood. We can hope that the author will make all of this clear in the next few sentences, but I cannot begin to tell you how many stories I’ve read that don’t give any clue for several paragraphs or pages! And unless we know this is an autobiography, we can’t use the author’s gender to tell us. Recently I had one author whose story I’d declined for my magazine (for other reasons) email me a rather scathing response about why should it matter what the character’s gender is?
Why does it matter? Simple. You want your reader enjoying the story, not trying to puzzle out simple details that the author should have made clear. If you really need to conceal the narrator’s identity AND gender, then make it clear to the reader that the information is a mystery for now.
Therefore: DON’T KEEP YOUR READER IN THE DARK WHEN THERE’S NO GOOD REASON TO!
Let’s move on to other aspects of story details and description.
I’ve recently talked about the five narrative modes in a story: description, exposition, dialogue, thoughts, action. Here’s the link, so I won’t need to repeat myself.
NOTE: Not all stories use all five of these, nor do they need to, but novels generally need them all or you’ll likely end up with some pretty dull prose.
When telling a story, the most important consideration is to keep your reader interested and involved, which means that you and the reader must share a rapport and be on the same page. The reader wants to know all necessary information and what’s happening and generally is not interested in being treated to an author’s desire to show off his wonderful writing.
In a movie, you can show the viewer everything important, even flash a one-line of a location on the screen when necessary. You can easily hide a character’s identity (wear a costume and mask or be kept in the shadows). The viewer then knows that information is being deliberately withheld for some reason, but even then you’re still giving the viewer information about the character.
In a novel, everything has to be done with words. If you leave out all description of your character, the reader won’t be able to visualize the character. A well-written story will be told in such a way that brings it to life almost as if it were a movie. This means that the writer should always be aware of what the reader knows and cannot know.
Here is where the second guideline comes into play. To be honest, any description you add will pause the story. The pause may be intentional, for a good story reason, but otherwise the story should keep moving. Well-integrated description will make the story feel as if it’s moving right along. Brevity is key, but so is giving your description the proper punch so that you don’t disengage the reader.
Unlike a movie, where multiple senses are active at one time and the viewer doesn’t have to imagine anything, in a written story, the words must do all the work. That places some big demands on the writer, who has to use words alone to stimulate the reader’s imagination.
I’ll discuss this more in the next part and give you some suggestions for achieving the balance along with some ways of inserting backstory that don’t grind your novel to a halt. Meanwhile, here’s a short passage to show you one way to deliver information while keeping the story moving. I don’t claim perfection, but it supplies a lot of information about the characters while still telling a story and adding a bit of mystery. There’s a bit of foreshadowing that maybe the evening won’t be quite what the naive Drake expects.
Drake fidgeted on his parents’ white living room sofa, the one for decoration not for sitting on. He checked the pocket watch he’d been holding for the past fifteen minutes. Seven forty-three. Where were those two? They were supposed to be here by now. If they didn’t show, it was too late to find another ride. He’d been planning this all week. Well, he could call a taxi, except he wasn’t exactly sure where he was going. Jason said he knew a perfect club, but you had to be eighteen to get in. He told them that wasn’t a problem. Not for Ethan Radley’s son. His pocket change had purchased him the fake ID. No way was his ass staying home tonight, not with summer nearly over. The rents are away, Drake’s gonna play.
He’d been dressed and ready an hour ago: slightly sagged jeans—he wasn’t into showing off his butt—an oversized, white T-shirt, and his silver wallet chain draped over his pocket.
A horn honked outside. He bolted off the couch. The horn honked again. He opened the front door and waved at Todd’s piece-of-shit car. Todd revved the engine to show off his barely functioning muffler. Drake made sure he had his house keys and wallet before he locked the door behind him.
Jason yelled out the passenger’s side window, with a cigarette dangling out of his mouth, “Dude, let’s go!”
Drake sauntered toward the Franken-car.
“Hurry up! Get yo punk ass movin’ so us white boys can par-tee.”
Drake got in behind Jason.
“Nice duds,” Jason said.
“Perfect for where he’s goin’,” Todd said and gave Jason a high five. They both laughed, then Todd said, “Um, our agreement?”
Drake pulled out his wallet. “Twenty, right?”
“Unless you want to contribute more.”
Drake gave him a twenty.
He’d barely put his wallet back when Todd put the car into reverse, gunned the engine, sped backwards out of the driveway, and slammed on the brakes. Drake shot forward and almost banged into Jason’s seat. Before he could recover, Todd yanked the gearshift into drive and hit the accelerator again. The car lurched, slamming Drake backward.
“Don’t forget to fasten your seatbelt,” Todd said.