One of the hardest parts of writing fiction is to figure out how much detail to put into a scene.
Too much, and your reader gets bored and starts skimming until they get to the action-y parts.
Too little, and your reader can’t adequately picture what’s going on. You gotta be Goldilocks and get it “just right.”
But how do you do that?
The key is to embed descriptive details into the action and the narrative. You don’t want to stop all action while your main character notes the setting and their feelings.
I’ve found that the vast majority of writers I’ve worked with over the years struggle with adding enough detail rather than too much.
One strategy to find parts that you can expand further is to look for moments in your stories that impact your character in some way but you haven’t really included that impact.
Look for single sentences that convey a feeling or an important moment but they don’t go any further than that one sentence. They tell the reader something but never paint a picture and show it.
For example, you might find a sentence like, “It was so embarrassing,” or “He shot the winning goal,” where you’ve got an important moment that you could expand.
Highlight that sentence and then expand that moment into a full paragraph, explode it, (but without the grenade or bomb).
Are you wondering how, exactly, to “explode that moment”?
Slow the moment down.
- What does your character see? Smell? Taste?
- How does your character feel about whatever is happening?
- What can you add so your reader is there in the moment with you or your character?
Some “Explode a Moment” Examples
Veronica Roth does a great job “exploding moments” all the way through Divergent. But really, any great author does this. For example, when Tris first shoots a gun, she could have written:
“It was scary shooting a gun for the first time, and I kept missing. I’m a terrible shot.”
But Roth doesn’t write that. Instead, she explodes the moment into a full paragraph and writes:
“I push my family from my mind, set my feet shoulder-width apart, and delicately wrap both hands around the handle of the gun. It’s heavy and hard to lift away from my body, but I want it to be as far from my face as possible. I squeeze the trigger, hesitantly at first and then harder, cringing away from the gun. The sound hurts my ears and the recoil http://nygoodhealth.com sends my hands back, toward my nose. I stumble, pressing my hand to the wall behind me for balance. I don’t know where my bullet went, but I know its not near the target. I fire again and again and again, and none of the bullets come close” (78).
Note the sensory details she includes such as what the gun feels like before and during the shot, and how it sounds.
She uses these details to show the reader the moment and also develop her character’s fear and hesitation with the whole process. But when Tris shoots “again and again” at the end, we know she’s made progress.
Here’s another example from John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. In this moment, Hazel and Gus are finishing their dinner in Amsterdam. Green starts off with a “telling” statement but then he expands it.
“We were both really full, but dessert–a succulently rich cremeux surrounded by passion fruit–was too good not to at least nibble, so we lingered for a while over dessert, trying to get hungry again. The sun was a toddler insistently refusing to go to bed: It was past eight thirty and still light” (167).
He could have stopped at “we were both really full,” but he doesn’t. He describes it and even gets some setting in there with a great simile describing the sun.
We understand that these two young lovers are doing everything they can to extend this lovely dinner because they know their time is limited.
Put it in writing
Now it’s your turn. The easiest way to do this is to find a “telling sentence” in a piece that you wrote and write it at the top of a new page.
Next, close your eyes. Imagine that moment. Expand it with as much detail as you can in your imagination, and start writing. Capture what you see in your mind’s eye.
Think about the setting and sensory details, the smell, the light, the feelings, the tastes. Imagine that moment in all its richness.
You might only need to add a sentence or two or you might find yourself filling up a half page or more.
The point is not to add tons of descriptive details but to add enough that your reader can get drawn into the story that much further and really relate to your characters.
What strategies do you use to identify those areas that need more detail? Share in the comments below.
Thanks for reading!