Friday, August 7, 2009

Telling Details Versus Meaningless Trivia

We all struggle to build realistic, compelling worlds for our readers. We want readers to experience our stories as real life, or an amazing magical simulacrum of real life, anyway. We wish to give our readers a picture of our characters and the places through which they move, and the only way to do that is by describing our characters and settings.

There is a wide range of opinion about how detailed your descriptions should be to accomplish this feat. I'm going to try staying out of that discussion today. What I'd like to ramble about for a while instead is the kind of detail we write into our stories. The worth of those details to our readers, if you will.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "trivia" as trifles, things of little consequence. The OED gives several definitions of "detail," but here's what I consider the most pertinent one: A minute or subordinate part of a building, sculpture, or painting, as distinct from the larger portions or the general conception. I'm going to expand that definition to include people, landscapes, objects or whatever is visible in a scene.

Detail versus trivia

I think that when we lard a scene over with descriptions of every visible object, and list inventorially the contents of every room or the costume of every character and try to "paint a picture," we are usually just giving a lot of trivia to the reader. Which is to say, if you present your reader with a list of fifty household goods or another list of twenty articles of clothing, can you really expect her to remember all of that stuff? Maybe, if the descriptions you give your readers are telling. To resort to the OED again, "telling" is effective, forcible, striking. Your descriptive details must mean something in the context of the story to be memorable, to be useful to the reader.

How do you know the difference? I think that if you can cut a detail and you lose no information about character, theme or story, you've just cut meaningless trivia. On the other hand, if your description points to something beyond itself, it has meaning to the reader.

Imagine a scene between two men. One of them is immaculately dressed in an expensive tailored suit, and the other is wearing older, off-the-rack clothes that are getting a bit tired and threadbare. You can describe the well-dressed fellow from his $100 haircut down to his $400 shoes, and then describe the other fellow in a similar fashion, from his grown-out Supercuts down to his scuffed Payless oxfords. That's a lot of description, and taking that kind of time in your narrative will bring your story to a full stop.

What you can do instead is to show one or two telling details of their clothes. Man One offers to shake hands with Man Two. Man Two notices the fine cut of Man One's suit, then looks down and sees that he's missing a button from the cuff of his own suit coat and pulls his hand away, putting it behind his back in embarrassment. Or something like. The reader has seen Man One's confidence and better dress, as well as Man Two's relative place in society and how he feels about it. Four birds with one stone, as it were.

Another example would be the dinner party in "Little Women." We get just enough about the dresses the girls are wearing to know that, while they are the March's finest dresses, they are also not so fine as the girls could wish. And the bit about Jo's gloves is brilliantly done and reinforces both Jo's and Meg's characters.

One other real problem with long, detailed descriptions is that, once you've dumped all the details on your reader, you can't usually invoke those details later on and impart more meaning to them farther along in your story. The details haven't stood out (weren't telling) when first mentioned, so the opportunity to have them be effective and possibly symbolic has been lost. Be sparing with your descriptions and parcel them out as required, but no more.

So you might take a few minutes and look around your scenes and ask yourself what matters in the way of description. Ask yourself what single detail of character or setting would deepen the meaning of the scene, and which details are merely trivia and set dressing. A few well-placed and thoughtful details are, as the saying goes, worth a thousand words.


  1. Four birds! Nice post, S. to the G. F. to the B. Way back, I wrote a post about not using the word "and." In a way, this is PARTIALLY related to that. I try to choose the one detail that is the more revealing, the most unique, because using one becomes more memorable to the reader. I'd argue that it's far more memorable than even two details side by side.

    A teacher once said that the details and descriptions were the main places where an artist's voice comes through. I didn't fully agree with that at the time, but I think for many writer's, that's true. Because of that, I think details tend to get overdone, as those are the places that feel like our playground. We let loose when, perhaps, we should be restraining ourselves more.

    I think when you increase the number of details, when you create that inventory list, readers don't view them as relevant to the story, but perhaps relevant only to the voice or the tone of the piece...which, admittedly, will be important to some readers.

    Tolstoy, who is extremely concise most of the time, sometimes will expand small moments and provide gads of detail, seemingly tiny detail, to set up contrast and importance. He can create magic moments this way--and it's beyond me as to how he knows when he can get away with it.

  2. Davin, I think about that post EVERY time I use the word "and" to string together to descriptions. Almost always I choose one description instead.

    Scott, the more I've written the more I've learned how important it is to choose the right details at the right time. Like Davin says about Tolstoy, it's hard to know when you can get away with more. A talent, that's for sure. And lots of practice and experimentation.

    And like I said before, description for me is like saffron. A tiny bit often goes a long way. One of my favorite phrases when it comes to description is: Keep It Simple, Stupid

  3. Brilliant advice. I'm going to dig up that scene from Little Women and study it. This is craft at its best.

    Well done on the post.

  4. I'm kinda attracted to Man 1 in the nice that wierd? lol!

    So true what you are saying here and something I wrestle with quite a bit. When is it just writing to fill a page and when is it true storytelling?

    We are storytellers, after all.

  5. I think there are three primary categories trivia can relate to: people, places, and things.

    For all three, it usually boils down to either a physical description or backstory.

    There are two valid reasons for providing extraneous detail: to set a mood or tone, or to provide depth to the character and/or the plot. Although it could be argues that if the reasons are valid, the detail is not extraneous, so I may have just offered a paradox.

  6. Rick: I would say that if the details actually set the mood or tone, or deepen character and plot, they aren't extraneous. But we have to be careful that we're actually adding, not padding.

    And there are writers who have a very baroque style, with cumulative layers of detail. When it's done well (which is rarely), it's very gorgeous and attractive. But also, I think, this cumulative effect is something that only a few writers can pull off. I see a lot of books where it's like a dumptruck has dropped a cubic acre of detail into a scene, none of which actually tells us anything except that the writer has thought a lot about setting. This tells us about the writer, but not the story.

    Add, don't pad!

  7. Do you think the sheer abundance, whether quality or not, is sort of an element on its own? Sometimes I'm just in the mood to immerse myself in that, more for the linguistic rhythm than for good storytelling.

  8. Lately I've wondered if I include too much detail like "He looked at his shoes" or "She bit her lip." On one hand, I think it helps break up dialogue, much like dialogue tags do when used sparingly; on the one hand again but in a contrary way, do the readers really need to know all of that? I'm not sure. Maybe it helps show consistency in the character's actions.

    Honestly, I just need to get back to writing a lot.

  9. Davin: I think that abundant, immersive prose is lots of fun. I love the feeling that I've hit my stride, things pouring out onto the page, the rhythms and vowel sounds carrying me along in a breathless rush, mountains of gorgeous words in my wake. Indulging in that sort of thing is like eating an exquisite, five-course meal, watching a brilliantly choreographed ballet or hearing the final chorus to Carmina Burana. Sometimes, it's even fun for the reader.

    Justus: A lot of those sorts of actions are just beats in dialogue, which we need to give the reader a pause to catch up. But too often they're just empty filler and could be (should be) replaced with actions that have meaning for the characters. It's good to have specific traits, even verbal ones, for characters. I have a guy who starts his paragraphs by saying "Ah" all the time. But we have to be careful that details like this aren't just there to fill in space. Something else to consider is the idea that, if you need to add beats to your dialogue often, you might just trim the dialogue instead.

  10. D-Man: I am inclined to agree with your teacher about details and the artist's voice. It's the things to which we draw the reader's attention that show what we think is important, and what we think is important--what we really care about--is who we are as artists (and human beings). Detail is us, and we shouldn't treat it as backdrop. So says I in my egotistic way. But I also agree about tone and voice. I have no idea how Tolstoy gets away sometimes with showing every stitch and button or whathaveyou. I suspect it's because, in those particular scenes, every stitch and button matters.

    Michelle: Yeah, it's the use of spices that make or break the chef! Subtlety is highly underrated. And thanks again for helping me have an ephiphany today!

    T. Anne: I also like the bit in Little Women about Jo's writing hat. I am tempted to get a writing hat myself. But not with a red ribbon on it.

    Tess: Hmmm. Man One might be the villain. Be careful. It's good to remember that we are storytellers, yes. It's good to know that even my huge ego is less important to the reader than the story is.

  11. Justus, Scott brings up a good point. Those details may be helping the dialog read better. So, you can keep them, but you may need to improve them by making them more personal.

    Two mantras:

    1. Every character does everything in a unique way.

    2. Davin is the best.

  12. 1. Davin paraphrases with exact exactitudinal exactness, and clarifies with clarifying clarity.

    2. Davin is the bestest of the bester best.

  13. Another great example of E.B. White's admonition to "omit needless words."

  14. I teach writing to children as part of my job. One of the things that I really focus on is details. Again, not the quantity of the details, but the quality. It is the detail that makes the idea come alive. It is the detail that helps the reader create a picture in her mind.

    Often, it is the detail that stays with the reader long after the reading is done.

    Interesting as usual!


  15. Oh I love this post. I have this problem. I'm always trying to give too much detail. I'm going to copy and paste this and put it by my computer. Thanks Scott. :)

  16. Robyn, I'm surprised you say that. Your prose style seems so clean and concise.

  17. I like to read fiction where the pace is steady and the details are poignant but not too telling or overused. I hope to write such fiction as well.

    When details work for me, they are like touchstones creating the scene but without being heavy handed. A good writer is like an artist then, in the telling of their story, knowing when and how many details are needed to convey the message.

  18. Excellent advice. If we know our characters well enough, then it's easier to decipher which details are important to include. Setting on the other hand, especially for historicals is trickier. I often base setting details on character mood or what is important to plot. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!


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