How to Write a Description - How Detailed Should Your Story Be?

Are you wondering how to write a description or a story with just the right amount of detail? Read on!

Recently, a student asked me an interesting question:

"How much detail should I use in a story?"

How much detail to include is an artistic choice, and will depend on a number of things...

1) Style.

Some authors are minimalists; others have a lusher style. One approach is not better than the other; they're just different.

2) Scope and form.

If you're writing a one-page flash fiction story, you have less room for detail than if you're writing longer story, or a novel.

On the other hand, if your story focuses in on a single encounter between friends, you might have room for more detail than if it covers twenty years of the friends' relationship.

Again, one approach is not better than another -- they are just different types of stories that might require different artistic strategies.

3) Pacing.

In general, the more detailed a scene is, the more slowly it will seem to move.

You can add detail as a way to slow down a scene to create suspense or emotional intensity. And you can quickly summarize parts of a story that are less interesting or important.

4) Point of view.

What details is your main character noticing at each point in a scene? Getting inside your character's head can help you decide how much detail to include.

If a killer is chasing your character through a palace, your character might not stop to admire the elaborate carvings on the chairs or the beautiful frescos on the ceiling...

Your character might not be interested in how the killer is dressed, or the color of the killer's eyes...

On the other hand, if your character is sitting in a café with someone they're in love with, they might notice many details of the other person's physical appearance...

5) Focus.

As an author, if you zoom in on some part of a scene and show it in more detail than the rest, that can be a way to signal its importance to the reader.

For example, let's say your character is sitting in a stranger's living room. The stranger has left the room to get your character a glass of water, and your character is looking around. Your character notices a metallic glinting under one of the chairs. Maybe it's nothing -- maybe it's just a coffee spoon that fell on the carpet. But by describing that metallic glint in detail, you'll get the reader curious -- and the reader will suspect it's something more interesting than a coffee spoon...

Or, let's say you're showing a conversation between two characters, and one person's voice suddenly goes hoarse. A person's voice can go hoarse for lots of uninteresting reasons -- for example, if they're a little dehydrated. But by describing the sudden hoarseness, you can suggest that it's important; readers might assume, for example,that the character's been overwhelmed by a strong emotion that is affecting their voice.

An interesting exercise is to try writing the same scene with different levels of detail. Practice zooming in and zooming out.

When you're revising a story, you can experiment with different levels of detail until you find the approach that works best.

Reminder: If you notice that other writers are using more or less detail than you do, that doesn't mean you're doing it wrong! There are many different ways to write a story.

How to Write a Description - Next Steps

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