How Much Detail Do You Need In A Novel?

How Much Detail Do You Need In A Novel?

Are you struggling with descriptions in your book? In this post we answer the question, ‘How much detail do you need in a novel?’

This is the fourth post in a series on How Much questions. Previously we looked at how much blood you need in a crime novel, how much sex you need in a sex scene, how much magic you need in a fantasy novel, and how much profanity you need in a novel. In today’s post, we look at how much detail you need in a novel.

How Much Detail Do You Need In A Novel?

Elmore Leonard said, ‘When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.’ Great advice, right? The challenge is that we don’t know which parts they will want to skip.

The other day, during one of our writing sessions, a student asked about the amount of detail they needed to include in their scenes. The obvious answer was to skip the mundane, everyday bits. Simply, establish the status quo, introduce the change, and get that story started.

Then we began a discussion about the movie Stranger than Fiction. Thanks, Jens. That movie revels in the mundane boring bits of Howard Crick’s life. Now what?

Every description, every scene, and every character must have a function. When we consider the purpose of those scenes, we will see that it is a showing technique. We need to understand how boring this character is. The writer did it on purpose.

Let’s consider how much detail we need in a novel?

📖 Word count:

I am a huge fan of word counts. Most genres are written to word count and that helps you figure out how many scenes you need and how many words are in a scene. It’s a simple guide to limit or expand the amount of description.

🔍 Foregrounding:

Figure out which details are important to the scene and highlight those. Is there a red stain on the carpet? Does it lead the detective to the scene of the crime, or does it remind them of a childhood event that has nothing to do with the story? Highlight the important details, but gloss over or skip the unnecessary bits. We do not need to describe every detail.

🔢 Frequency:

How often will your character encounter this character or setting?  Sometimes we encounter a character only once. This character is often part of a certain setting, and we are given a short description of them by the viewpoint character. This will reveal character traits about the viewpoint character, so it serves a purpose. As a ‘rule’ though, I would encourage you not to describe every single character and setting we encounter only once. If it is a setting or character that we encounter often it will be more important and need a more detailed description.

The Last Word

As we have seen throughout this series, the answer to ‘how much’ is most often, ‘It depends’. You need to know what your goal is with your story. It is also a good idea to keep in mind that this is ‘second draft stuff’. Unless you are a meticulous plotter you won’t know what is important yet.

If you’re looking for help with description and setting, buy our Setting Up The Setting Workbook.

Mia Botha by Mia Botha

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Posted on: 7th July 2021