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Details, Details, Details

As I’ve pointed out in an earlier post, the process of reading includes the task of trying to remember as much information as the writer provides. The writer’s task includes doing her or his best to not provide any information that unnecessarily burdens the reader. Details can be very effective in providing a sense of verisimilitude for the reader, but it’s crucial to understand the type of detail we’re talking about. Let’s consider the information provided in the following paragraph.

The hangar had been converted into living space for 700 people. Seven rows of ten bunk beds were set against the wall at the far end of the space, with a wooden partition between them and the next set of seven rows to their right, down the wall to the near end. Separated by another wooden partition from the sleeping area was a set of twenty showers, each with a plastic curtain, and each containing a small bar of soap and tube of shampoo. On a metal rack on the other side of the hangar, attached at both ends by PVC piping, hung 125 sets of neatly arranged overalls, and a matching set of 125 flak jackets.

The writer is attempting to provide the reader with a sense of the size of the converted hangar, as well as a sense of orderliness. The information provided, however, goes into far too much detail. Remember the reader’s task? When a reader is provided specific numbers, she or he tries to remember those numbers. For example, if a character has only twenty-four hours to live, you can be sure that the reader is going to be counting those hours down as the story progresses. If the writer says the twelfth step on the stairs always creaks, the reader is sure to wait in expectation when a character is going up those stairs one by one, to see what happens at the twelfth step. If there’s a zombie horde approaching and the writer says the character only has three bullets left in the gun, the reader is bound to be thinking about whether or not the character will leave the third to kill him/herself. Numbers are for calculating. That’s how the reader’s mind works.

With that in mind, let’s go back to the example. In just the one paragraph alone, the reader is trying to keep the following in mind: 700 people, 7 rows of 10 beds times x partitions, all along the far wall, 20 showers, 125 sets of clothes and flak jackets on the near wall, plastic shower curtains, metal piping, wooden partitions…. This is called torturing the reader. Writers, please don’t torture your readers, it’s bad for book sales.

Here’s what you do instead. Go back to the original premise. In the example, the writer is trying to show a sense of scale, and of orderliness. If there are only 125 sets of overalls, it’s likely that the hangar doesn’t house all 700 people it can potentially house. So start with the more general idea of “over a hundred” for the scene, rather than a specific number. We can also hedge numbers with the showers and overalls, and maybe even omit the type of material used in construction.

The hangar had been converted into a large-scale living space. Hundreds of bunk beds were exactingly arranged along the far wall. A makeshift barrier separated the beds from the shower area, which contained dozens of showerheads in a row. On the near wall there was a rack of over a hundred neatly-hung overalls and flak jackets.

This is not to say that specifics aren’t important. The right kind of specific, such as “neatly-hung” and “exactingly” provide a sense that whoever has set up the hangar has paid attention to orderliness. A different arrangement might include “sloppily-hung” and “carelessly” to suggest the area was more hastily or casually set up.

When writing, try to keep in mind the type of details you’re providing, making sure that you’re not burdening the reader with unnecessarily specific information.