One of the most difficult things for new writers — and sometimes even for experienced ones — is finding the balance between clarity and condescension. Authors want to paint a picture for their readers, to show them the scene precisely as they’ve imagined it, and the old adage “show, don’t tell” seems to support that inclination. But the truth is that if you “show” every single detail of your story, if you describe each setting and character twitch and moment that passes from beginning to end, your finished manuscript will be far longer than necessary, and you risk insulting your reader and/or boring them to tears. At some point, the writer has to trust the reader to understand what they’re trying to convey.
So how do you determine how much detail to include in your work? Finding a balance between heavy-handed description and repetition of information that implies your reader cannot follow your plot, and holding back so much that you leave your reader confused or lost, takes a certain amount of practice and, often, the reactions of a few carefully chosen beta readers. But here are a few things to consider:
When describing a new setting, keep in mind the importance of that location to your story, how familiar it might be to an average reader, and any key components that your reader will need to recall later in the story. People know what a typical living room looks like, so you only need convey a few key details to set that sort of scene. Pick things that stand out; if you stood in the room with your eye closed, then opened them, what three things would pop out at you first? Are there props that will show up again later? A gun over the mantle? A rip in the carpet where someone could trip? Are there details that might do double-duty to tell your reader about the person who owns that home? A lack of knick-knacks? Framed photos on every surface? An inch of dust on everything? If half your book takes place in this home, you’ll flesh out the room more than you would if your characters visit it for only one scene. But regardless, you don’t need to provide your reader with every detail about that room; their imagination can fill in whatever you leave out.
Unusual settings require more detail than those a reader might reasonably recognize with just a few broad strokes. Fantasy and science fiction novels include more world building on the whole because the author is creating something fresh and needs to provide more detail to place the reader in the scene. But even then, avoid getting bogged down in mundane details that slow the action. Provide the reader with a sketch instead of a photograph.
The same is true of conveying action or emotions or character decisions. Let the reader learn the character’s intentions when the character takes action, and avoid getting bogged down in the character’s head. Trust that your reader will follow your protagonist through their adventures without hearing their thought process ahead of time or every detail of their personal analysis of the situation. First person narratives often face this difficulty. Don’t confuse the ability to go inside your protagonist’s head with an obligation to convey every thought to your reader. Let your character hold onto some of their secrets. Focus instead on their actions and reactions, how what they do and say conveys what’s going on inside their heads. And beware of filler behaviors — deep breaths and smiles and sighs — that tell your reader very little and mean even less when used too often.
But how do you avoid the opposite difficulty? What do you do to make sure your reader doesn’t get lost for lack of detail? There are definitely times when you want to include information that will be important to your plot — clues, foreshadowing, etc. — and in some cases those details will even need to be repeated periodically. Some will be subtle early in the text and gather momentum as you go along, and others will require mentioning without undue emphasis. But most of the time, you will only need to tell the reader things once.
One way to make sure nothing gets left out is to make a list of information that is key to your resolution and go back through your manuscript after the first draft is completed to make sure the puzzle pieces all appear in the text. Another way is to question your beta readers once they’ve finished a read to see if they felt lost or confused about any part of the plot development. Follow up with them on any confusion to see if their questions relate to missing details in descriptions, character motivation, action, or overall story arc. This will allow you to pinpoint what part of your manuscript requires work.
Finding the balance between too much detail and too little can be a process of trial and error, but too much description can bog down a story, ruining the pacing and any sense of suspense. It’s important to remember that, as the author, you know many things about your world and characters that will never find their way into your text, and that is fine. Trust that your readers will bring their own knowledge and experience to your story, and that at the end of the day, they are less interested in the color of the sofa than in what your protagonist says while sitting on it.