The Thing About Selecting Detail..

So, let’s say that in your planning of your story, whether it be on paper, electronic, or in your brain, and you have several details about your character.  Actually, you have a list.  I’ll give you one of my lists as an example to use throughout this post.

Name: Annabel Winston

Eyes: Hazel-brown

Hair: Burnt red/auburn

The Physical: Generally wears torn blue jeans / raggy shorts to show off long legs.  Likes to wear violet or navy colored clothing.  Has some breasts, but not big enough in her opinion.  Wears little to no make-up. Has freckles on nose, under eyes, on arms. 

Likes: The sun, her boyfriend who’s obviously not human, hands, painting, her mother’s studio, and chocolate

Dislikes: Black cats with yellow eyes, running, when there’s no A/C, vegetables.

I don’t usually do personality because, well, if you couldn’t tell already, I believe the physical and likes/dislikes do enough to give a general idea about who this girl may be.  Plus, this keeps me from trying to put an adjective to a Feeling or Inward part of my character.  In other words, it keeps me from telling her personality instead of showing it.  Doing this may or may not help you if you plan, but that’s for you to discover, not for me to tell you.

So now you have this list of things that you know that you want your readers to see or know about this character.  But, of all these details which do you really need?

First off, though you may not like to hear it, you might have to write quite a bit to actually learn from this lesson.  Sometimes its just hard to tell if a detail is so needed that if you delete it, it may take away from your story.  But, this generally happens when you have to debate what amount of words, paragraphs, or pages of your draft that you can delete without destroying the story’s essence.  We have yet to get that far, but this post will give you a general idea of unneeded details.

All right, the only way we can learn about what we can delete is to write it.  Lets try to begin with a short scene where Annabel is leaving her house and happens upon a cat.  Let’s see how many details we can jab into this one scene, shall we?   ( Also, as a side note, I’ll be using third person limited point of view ( POV ).  I’ll try to make my next post about POV so that we can learn what the differences are, when to and when not to use it, as well as what it entails in our writing. )

“See you after school, dear!” Annabel’s mother called as the girl rushed out her front door.  She pulled her burnt auburn braid out from under backpack’s strap as she began to run down her drive and to the sidewalk.  Her bag slapped against her back as she grimaced.

“No good boyfriend,” Annabel muttered.  He was usually her drive to school, but unfortunately he had other errands to run that morning.  Though she herself had a license to drive, and was a senior in high school with a twenty-one year old boy, she had yet to gain the money to buy herself a car.

Feeling the strain of her torn blue jeans on her long legs as she ran the sidewalk, Annabel cursed under her breath again.  God, she hated running. 

Rounding the first corner of her two mile run, a black cat with golden eyes peered up at her as it lazily stopped to watch her.  Annabel yelped as she stopped as fast as she could, slipping on the concrete due to the least amount of friction her shoes held. The cat watched her for a moment and Annabel scooted away from it, or tried to as her shoes kept slipping from under her, causing her to slide.  The cat’s tail twitched.

“Get away from me!”Annabel screamed as she slipped off her shoe and threw it at the cat.  It hissed as the shoe flew near it before running off.  Annabel grabbed her shoe.

“Damn cat,” she muttered as she slipped it back on, realizing she was later than ever for her first class.  There was a reason she hated cats.

Okay, so a little extreme with the cat, but you get the point.  Now let’s look at it and see if there are any details that I could probably do without.  I purposefully wrote a few to elaborate my point on them, plus there’s always that extra bit I just throw into a draft for fun.  I’ll bold all the details that I see as possibly excessive or unneeded for this certain scene.  Some can just be deleted, while others can be added to a different scene much later or earlier.

“See you after school, dear!” Annabel’s mother called as the girl rushed out her front door.  She pulled her burnt auburn braid out from under backpack’s strap as she began to run down her drive and to the sidewalk.  Her bag slapped against her back as she grimaced.

“No good boyfriend,” Annabel muttered.  He was usually her drive to school, but unfortunately he had other errands to run that morning.  Though she herself had a license to drive, and was a senior in high school with a twenty-one year old boy, she had yet to gain the money to buy herself a car.

Feeling the strain of her torn blue jeans on her long legs as she ran the sidewalk, Annabel cursed under her breath again.  God, she hated running. 

Rounding the first corner of her two mile run, a black cat with golden eyes peered up at her as it lazily stopped to watch her.  Annabel yelped as she stopped as fast as she could, slipping on the concrete due to the least amount of friction her shoes held. The cat watched her for a moment and Annabel scooted away from it, or tried to as her shoes kept slipping from under her, causing her to slide.  The cat’s tail twitched.

“Get away from me!”Annabel screamed as she slipped off her shoe and threw it at the cat.  It hissed as the shoe flew near it before running off.  Annabel grabbed her shoe.

“Damn cat,” she muttered as she slipped it back on, realizing she was later than ever for her first class.  There was a reason she hated cats.

So, there aren’t that many details that I could change, but sometimes it’s the little things that count.  Now there are other edits that I would make to that scene, but they aren’t involved with this lesson.  I’ll just leave them be and say that this is what it is.

As you can see, what I have bolded are things that are on my list, but they are sorta layered on top of each other.  There is also one detail that I snuck in there about the boyfriend, which could also be added later.  If you read the scene without it, you will notice that its not needed to begin with.  The reader doesn’t need to know the details of the boyfriend just yet, and keeping them in suspense for it will only drive them to read more of your story.

Anywho, you can see the layered details here, where I was obviously conscience of something that I wanted my readers to know about my character.  Though, when you read it, it almost appears forced, doesn’t it?  The point of this was to show you that if you force details, it could be distracting.  Plus, you don’t have to always put everything on your list in your stories.  If your character has “burnt auburn hair,” your readers will probably get the same image of color if you had just said “auburn hair.” Both generally mean that the character has some shade of dark red hair.

As for the detail of “torn blue jeans on her long legs,” it’s a little much for one sentence.  Personally, I’d just cut the “torn blue jeans” part and leave the “long legs” detail.  I would do this because of the action my character is performing.  Running has more to do with legs than it does with clothing.  Plus, I can just wait for a moment when my character is sitting and she spills something on her jeans as she eats.

As another fun fact, you don’t always have to use a mirror to convey what a character is wearing.  Accidents happen, characters get muddy, torn, and soup stained clothes just as much as anyone does.  They just happen to have these accidents at the exact time that you need to describe some article of clothing to your reader. 😉

The first key to selecting details for a story is to not select details that elaborate the same point.  Burnt auburn hair looks the same as auburn to a reader, just as a tiny, cramped Waffle House looks the same as a cramped Waffle House emphasised by size through other details.  Second is to not pile your details one after another.  Spread them out, and let your reader take in your character slowly, just like they would if they had met them in life. ( Only difference is that you get to be a bit more intimate with a story’s character than with a life’s stranger. ) And Lastly, some details can just wait for later.  You don’t have to explain everything about everyone all at once.  I guess the last point kind of goes along with point numba two, only for more general of things. ( like an unnecessary detail about some boyfriend we haven’t met yet. )

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4 thoughts on “The Thing About Selecting Detail..

  1. I will admit, I’m a very detail-oriented writer and tend to pack too much information in a single sentence. However, one of the things that I always do is look up the meanings behind my characters’ names to make sure that they fit. I’m planing on revising one of my longer pieces soon and I dread having to hack it apart.

    • Well, having detail and being able to use it is good. It’s just when a sentence has so much to it that it tends to create a mesh rather than actually giving a reader the image you intend. Really, it’s all about flow of the writing and conveying what you mean to the reader. It becomes really subjective too at some point, so then one has to figure out, if say your editing for another piece that isn’t yours, whether it’s just a style choice, or if something is really wrong.

      • Yeah, I’m currently employed as a writing tutor, and it’s so hard whenever I get a creative writing piece, because I can’t really edit grammar because that’s a style issue, and there’s not much one can do with structure.

      • Well, then it comes to whether their writing is at that level to where they can claim that it is a style choice. If the writing isn’t, then its easy to argue. Plus, you can always ask the writer if he/she intentionally did it because of their narrator. ( as far as grammar goes, its better for beginning/almost intermediate writers to avoid tricks and stick to the basics/grammar rules. ) Personally, I don’t feel that anyone can fully say that they have a “style” of writing until they’ve surpassed Faulker, Hemingway, and Tim O’Brian level. ( or at least gotten more than a fingertip into that level of literacy )

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