Sprinkling in Details in Our Writing: How much to share—and when

by Myndi Shafer, WANA Commons

by Myndi Shafer, WANA Commons

Some of the best writing advice I’ve ever received didn’t come out of a creative writing workshop. No, I learned it at the copy desk of my college newspaper, where I spent each Saturday hunched over pages with a colored pen, making news article polished and shiny and ready for the world. (UPDATE: I’m not bashing workshops here. The creative writing workshops I took as an undergrad and grad student have helped me immensely as a writer.)

We were reading over an article that featured a lot of background information. My college journalism professor—who also spent each Saturday hunched over those pages—told us not to give the background upfront. “Sprinkle it in,” he said.

When writing a first draft, we’re often tempted to put all the details in the first few chapters. This is well-intentioned—we want to ground the reader. But too much detail all at once is overwhelming. In later drafts, we can pare down large sections of exposition. And that’s where sprinkling comes in. What do we sprinkle? A few items immediately spring to mind:

Character backstory

We don’t need to know a character’s tragic past in the first chapter—often times, referencing that tragedy briefly will intrigue readers and keep them reading. There might be a Big Reveal, when a crucial memory/incident is shared, but most character details can be sprinkled.

World-building

This is especially true for those of us who write fantasy or science fiction—we need to share how magic or technology works, the rules of our world, geography, history, cultural details, etc. But readers don’t need to know all the ins and outs of our world—the size of the capital city, how a piece of technology works, the political structure of the society, or the rules of magic—all up front. We can share details as they’re needed to ground the reader, but in general, the less exposition in the first few chapters, the better.

Setting

We should carefully pick and choose details of the setting to share. The layout of a room might be important, for example, but the details of each oil painting on the walls can probably wait. We can avoid a lot of references to weather unless they’re clearly necessary. As with world-building details, readers need to feel grounded—they need sensory detail to draw them into the world we’ve created on the page—but the setting shouldn’t overwhelm the action. A few well-chosen details can go a long way, especially if they evoke one or more of the five senses.

Description

Each detail should do more than one thing. For example, if we describe a character’s outfit, does her wardrobe reveal something about her character—her socioeconomic status, her personality, her career, how she sees herself, etc.? If we describe a character’s facial features, what do those features say about his personality or how he’s reacting to the events of the plot?

The key is never to overwhelm the reader with details. Instead, like my journalism professor said, we sprinkle those details throughout, interspersed with action and dialogue to create a page-turner.

Lastly, a midweek ROW80 check-in…

Writing:

  • Finish a second draft of my novella “Good Old-Fashioned Magic.” Finished.
  • Write a first draft of a novella novelette. Finished—“Called by Magic,” 13K.
  • Start work on another novelette. Wrote 2,590 words. I had some problems with the second chapter, so I spent yesterday working those out before adding any new material.
  • Read a minimum of four books on the business or craft of writing. Four of four books read. Reading a fifth book, “Manuscript Makeover” by Elizabeth Lyon.

Social media:

  • Check in on Twitter or Facebook daily. On track to meet this goal.
  • Blog two times per week. On track.
  • Comment on three to five blogs per day, Monday-Thursday. On track.

A Round of Words in 80 Days is the writing challenge that knows you have a life. It’s also a blog hop.

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17 thoughts on “Sprinkling in Details in Our Writing: How much to share—and when

  1. Congrats on all your progress!

    I want to put in a word here in the defense of workshops. When you trade critiques in a workshop, you don’t only learn from the critiques you receive, IMO you also learn from the critiques you give. Since it isn’t your own stuff (which by default you are attached to) you learn how to take a step back and read the way a reader would. That is invaluable.

    • Thanks!

      Ruth, I totally agree. Both my undergraduate and graduate creative writing workshops have helped me immensely in my growth as a writer. I’m just surprised how much my journalism professor’s advice about writing articles has helped my fiction career. I didn’t mean to imply that workshops weren’t wonderful opportunities for us to learn and grow as writers.

  2. Oh Denise, how I wish you were sitting on my shoulder as I attempt to write my book. Are you reading my mind, or what? I lack so much experience and confidence. I am in torment. But keep these awesome craft articles coming. They may just keep my sanity! Thanks! 🙂

    • I’m sure you’re doing great. I often go through periods when I think a manuscript is doomed to dwell in a drawer because it can’t possibly be any good. After I take some time off and then reread, I’ll realize that while it’s not perfect, much of what I wrote is good and what the story needs is a just a few more drafts to really shine. So don’t be too hard on your story just yet. Good luck with your WIP!

  3. Sounds like a good week!

    By the way, thank you. I think I needed to be reminded to sprinkle. I sometimes get caught up in shoveling out the details that I forget to ease into it, either for suspense of just because.

    Have a good one.

    • Thanks!

      It’s something a lot of us tend to do in first drafts. I was looking through a story I wrote a couple years ago that I plan to revise (again). I spent years on that story, so I know every detail of the world, the characters’ back-stories, etc. But I tried to throw too many of those details in and it ended up slowing the pacing and cutting into the tension. That’s what sparked me to think of “sprinkling.”

  4. Good advice. I try my best to sprinkle. Don’t always succeed though. It can be so hard holding back. Self-control and I aren’t always besties and Willpower sometimes ignores my calls. 😉

    As always, good job with the goals!

    • Thanks. I try my best too but sometimes get stuck in those places where characters are explaining everything under the sun about how the rules of the world work or their personal history. Sometimes it’s because I’m still learning about my characters and their world and I just need to figure something out, but it ends up getting cut later. I say when you write a first draft, don’t worry about it. Don’t hold back. You can always focus on sprinkling on the next draft.

  5. I’m with you. My first drafts are info-dump city! I’m now making on-page notes for one WIP’s future revision; working through a revision plan for a second; drafting a third (and my Enterprise fan fiction, in chunks, for WIPpet Wednesday); and in the earliest stages of planning another.

    Okay, that’s a lot of projects! But what I’m learning, from moving through all of these together, is that I, too, use these dumps to figure out the story. I’m getting better and better at spotting it in the revisions, and being better at seeing it as I’m doing it.

    Maybe it’s not the perfect solution, but it is a good place to be in, or at least, it’s a better place than I’ve been. I plan to continue learning as long as I’m alive, and this is an improvement over the writing I was doing a few years ago (I know this, because two of my revision projects are at least two years old, and the third is from last May. I can see marked improvement – in the writing and the revision!).

    I’m reblogging this, because it’s good advice, and I want to remember it, too!

    • I would say it’s pretty common in first drafts. As writers, we’re figuring things out on the page, and so there’s some material to cut when we revise. I’ve noticed that I do it less now that I’m writing mostly shorter works. Sometimes I actually go back in and add a few details that I’ve learned along the way on the next draft, but I’m still sprinkling, and I still try to watch those long passages of exposition.

      I love being able to feel how much I’ve grown as a writer. There are things that feel automatic now–three-act structure, for example–that I hadn’t quite grasped a few years ago. And this year, writing full time, I can feel myself stretching and growing. It’s a wonderful feeling, and I couldn’t imagine writing without continuing to grow. Every new story is a new challenge.

      Thanks!

      • Beautifully expressed. A few years ago, I didn’t even know what three-act structure WAS – and now I use it all the time! I’m writing at various lengths now, but I do notice that the shorter pieces, with their greater need for relevant detail and not a lot of extraneous words and exposition, help me to focus on those areas in my novels, too. I’ve never been a fan of reading long runs of description or exposition, so learning how to avoid writing them is a plus!

  6. Great advice here! I like to see just enough description to orient me in a setting and give the basics of a character – age and a very general idea of appearance is usually enough to start, then feed the rest in as the story progresses. Big infodumps of backstory or worldbuilding are probably the #1 reason I put a book down.

    • I’m the same. I need those details to feel grounded in the scene–basic setting, sensory detail, what a character looks like–but too much info all at once overpowers the action and dialogue. Info dumps seem to be especially common in fantasy and sci-fi–the author tries to explain too much about the world at one time.

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