We all know the two main problems that writers face when it comes to detail, right? Too much, and you’re going to either annoy your readers, or put them to sleep. Not enough, and you won’t be giving your readers the tools they need to reconstruct your scene in their heads.
But did you know that there is a third common problem with detail which authors, even published authors, overlook? This third problem is when detail is condensed.
Condensed detail usually occurs in sequences of action: small details strung together to describe what your character is doing at one focused point in your story. Unfortunately, many authors tend to gloss over this detail, and to force separate pieces of an entire picture into a single sentence.
Take, for example, this passage which I read recently (from which novel will remain anonymous):
After showering, [Alex] threw on his dress pants and shirt, leaving the collar open at the neck, then packed the jacket and tie in the gym bag, before following his buddies out into the teeming city.
The detail is there. We’re given enough to construct in our heads what Alex is doing, and in what order … in theory. In practice, though, this condensed detail causes our eyes to skim the entire passage. Little, if any, of that detail is retained to create a tangible picture in our minds. As a result, the sentence feels rushed to its conclusion.
If the author of that passage was going to rush through that detail, I have to ask the question: why have it there at all? Why not just say that Alex left the gym? It would be a possible solution to leave all that detail out, of course. But what’s the fun in that? As a writer, words are your tools of the trade. Use them, and use them well.
Here’s my attempt to flesh out that sentence, and to really give that detail its due:
After a steaming-hot shower, Alex changed back into the black, relax-fit dress pants and the blue-grey button-down shirt he’d worn to work. He tucked his shirttails into the waist, since they were already wrinkled from a day of wear. But for a more casual feel, he left the collar open at the neck. Then, packing his suit jacket and tie into his gym bag, he followed his buddies outside, into the New York dusk.
The city teemed with people, bustling this way and that as they went about their busy lives …
If you’re going to have detail, don’t rush through it. Slow down, and give your detail its due. Your detail is important, after all: it tells your story.