Does Too Much Detail Spoil the Pace?

07 Oct

I’ve been working on a scene involving a spiritual ceremony. It is based on a real ritual. The initial part scene is full of sensory details and the mechanics of the ceremony. Yesterday, I sat down to write and as usual, I read the last few paragraphs to refresh my recollection and get into the mood of the scene. During the read back, I realized that, though vivid, the scene had so much detail that is slowed the pace to a crawl. Just as important, was the fact that so much detail was, not necessarily, important to help create the feelings I wanted the reader to experience.

This particular scene has two primary purposes. First, to foreshadow upcoming events and second, to enhance the conflict. As I wrote the scene initially, I went into all of the details of the ceremony trying to make it as real for the reader as if they were actually there. My thinking was that it would be easier for the reader to understand the source of ‘visions’ (i.e action) the protagonist was having in the later part of the scene. When I read the scene, the experience of the ceremony was there. However, it took a long time to get to the purpose of the scene. I’m not ready to trash the experiential detail as yet. I want to finish the scene and see if the action of the second half offsets the slow pace of the beginning. If it does, I’ll leave it in. If not, it will get sliced during revision.

I much prefer a quicker paced read.  Give me enough detail to paint a picture and move on. My imagination is vivid enough to fill in the blanks, Some of the ‘Masters’ e.g. Tolkien, Jordan, Brooks, drive me nuts with the amount of detailed description. Is a four page dissertation about a pastoral setting really necessary to bring the reader into the setting? I’m sorry, but the answer is, no. Most people who read the fantasy genre already have overactive imaginations. They only need a swift kick in the pants to get an image in their heads and to the reader, their version is more vivid than the writer can explain it anyway.

However…There are times when detail is necessary. Usually this happens when the thing being described is critical to the story. For example, the description of the one Ring in LOTR. It is THE critical piece of the story so taking the time to describe it, makes perfect sense. The thing to keep in mind when adding detail to your scene is, ‘How important is the description to the Plot?’. If it is not that important, a few words or lines should be sufficient to set the scene and bring in the reader’s senses. If it is ‘the One Ring’ of your story, go ahead and take some time. It will add emphasis the reader will grasp.

As always, try to mix your setting details and descriptions into the action and/or dialogue so as to avoid the infamous info dump.

So, tell me, Do you prefer a lot of detailed description or can you get by with just enough to pique your imagination?


Posted by on October 7, 2013 in Thoughts on Writing


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12 responses to “Does Too Much Detail Spoil the Pace?

  1. byjhmae

    October 7, 2013 at 11:57 am

    Great information. Many writers are guilty of TMI..including my favorite, George RR Martin. Do we really NEED to describe everyone’s clothes, really? That being said, I’m reading a Raymond Chandler novel right now, and I love his bare bones style of description. He’s not a very flowery writer, so if that’s not your style he’s not worth copying, BUT, the quick, precise details he gives are very effective and allow the reader to move on to the more interesting bits.

  2. Dennis Langley

    October 7, 2013 at 12:42 pm

    That’s the way I like to read as well as write. Give me a few setting details and then show me what happens next!

  3. Traci

    October 7, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    Fight scenes? I just skip to the end to see who won — I don’t need to see who tumbled where, tossed who, swiveled right and ducked low.

    • Dennis Langley

      October 8, 2013 at 8:41 am

      I agree that some authors take this to the extreme. I know of at least one who learned how to fence, just so he could choreograph his fight scenes. I do, however, believe that a little detail helps to keep the pace up. Thankfully, in real life, most fights last a few seconds, at most.

  4. Jade Reyner

    October 8, 2013 at 7:42 am

    I think there has to be a balance and it does depend on the genre and the book. I am generally an impatient reader so I like to get the gist and then just carry on… having said that though, there is nothing that frustrates me more than getting to the end of a scene and having to go back again because I’ve not understood it or there is something critical missing. It is definitely a talent to get it right! 🙂

    • Dennis Langley

      October 8, 2013 at 9:48 am

      Absolutely. This is where a writer’s style really comes out. How that balance is created is the writer’s signature. Much of this is hammered out during the revision process.

  5. 4amWriter

    October 9, 2013 at 4:32 pm

    I do like detail, but I agree too much can ruin the read. Setting the stage is important, as well as character description – but not when it interferes with the pace or distracts the reader from the plot.

    • Dennis Langley

      October 10, 2013 at 12:58 pm

      Absolutely. Balance is the key. As Mr. Miagi said, “If balance good, karate good. If balance bad, better pack up and go home.”

  6. Matthew Wright

    October 9, 2013 at 11:02 pm

    I think you’re right to go with your instincts and slash the detail if you’re uncomfortable with it. Worked for Hemingway!

    Tolkien’s an interesting case because a lot of what he did seems counter-intuitive by the Hemingway principle, yet it also worked brilliantly. I recall being very impressed indeed by his long description of the Ithilien woodlands, and I suppose a lot of it had to do with setting a mood – with making his world real through its details. But he didn’t intrude that particularly into the action sequences. I am not sure whether other authors trying to match the scale of LOTR managed it so well.

  7. Dennis Langley

    October 10, 2013 at 3:37 pm

    I hear and understand what you are saying about Tolkien. By far, he did it best. He ensured that every reader saw the same thing in their minds. However, I still question whether the story would have truly suffered if some of the detail was trimmed down.

  8. ltownsdin

    November 6, 2013 at 10:28 am

    Hi Dennis! Good piece and something I’ve been thinking about. I’m reading a mystery right now and I like the characters, the plot keeps changing and surprising me and that’s great, but the pace is so fast I’m getting annoyed. As a reader, I like to take a minute to form my own ideas of where the story is going, etc. My best suggestion is to run it by a few readers whose opinions you respect and hear what they think. Good luck!

    • Dennis Langley

      November 6, 2013 at 10:34 am

      You are right, too fast is as bad as too slow. Getting that right balance is the trick.


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