Why Realistic Details Can Misdirect Your Story

Yes, details are good. A writer needs to research and ask experts and know all the facts behind everything in their book. Right? Not necessarily. Too many details can create a confusing map of how to get through to the story at hand.

Oh, sure, KNOWING these things can be important, even essential, depending on the nature of your story and what audience you are trying to tempt with your book.

However, you don’t need so much depth that it sounds like a scientific treatise. Yet at the same time you DO need a few facts to show that there is a way or process that covers the reality of the infrastructure of your fictional world.

But how much is too much? Or too little?

For instance, maybe your protagonist travels to a desert enclave of rebels. This is a secret place, off the grid and off the map, deep in the bowels of a sand-filled environment. How to they get their water?  How are food and personnel brought in unnoticed? Or garbage shipped out? This could provide lots of questions that the author could spend pages on describing in detail.

Ask:  What does my story really require at this point?

Here is one way that the author could skip the specifics and still keep the story going in a believable way:

Henry arrived at the desert camp and was escorted through a barely visible entry at the side of a sand hill. Once inside, he was led down a long tunnel that opened to a cavernous, bustling hall. Dozens of people scurried about providing a sumptuous feast. The residents here had no lack of food or water or luxuries, and Henry had to wonder how this could be part of such a covert and hidden operation.

This example acknowledges that readers may wonder the same things as Henry. It becomes the author’s decision whether or not to provide answers—by determining whether or not Henry will ever find out. The decision would be based on whether these details help the plot and/or the believability of the story in general. That is strictly a judgment call on the part of the author.

Adding Implied Details

By providing a few more details, however, the author can have a bit of both “get on with the story” and “give me all the details.” In other words it can leave open some questions but imply that there are, in fact, answers to all of them.

Here’s an example:

Henry arrived in the desert camp and was escorted through a barely visible entry on the side of a sand hill. The tunnel he entered was intersected by numerous other tunnels. Etched in the floors of some of the other tunnels he could see shiny rails indicating frequent use by some form of rail cars, likely for delivering supplies. Large piping along the sides of the tunnels hinted at water, fuel, and who knew what else flowing between here and another location. Henry could only guess at how this infrastructure had been designed, let alone built, without detection. But he was certain of one thing: this was a well-planned and well-funded operation.

Now we have enough details to know that the questions the reader may have are, in fact, covered. Going into more details about where the water, fuel, or supplies came from or how long the tunnels are, could take up many pages.

Again, if knowing these details would provide set-ups for later plot angles, like escape routes, etc., then you may need to give more specifics. Otherwise this might be enough. Exactly how this place works isn’t really necessary to describe—we just need to believe that this world and its situations could exist.

How Much World-building is Necessary?

The biggest question is whether the set-up for this world is of major importance to your story. It might be. Some stories revolve mightily around world-building. Many readers adore being immersed in complete and involved details about a fictional world.

For other authors and readers, the characterization and interrelationships and conflicts are of greater importance.

Different authors and readers simply prefer different approaches. If you are not inclined to offer in-depth specifics and facts, then emphasize the story and not the details. Just give enough facts to justify–or imply–that your set-up works.

Details Lead to a New Career

I am reminded of bestselling author John J. Nance who started writing novels around airplane themes. I heard him speak years ago at a writer’s conference. His personal background as a retired and decorated pilot is demonstrated in his highly detailed novels in which the workings of the aircraft are vital to the plots. So much so, that after his book successes, he became an aviation analyst for ABC News. For him, the intimate details of aviation technology became his hallmark—catapulting him to this new career.

Now, granted his books are bestsellers and fascinating. But I, for one, don’t need all those details. Even my aviation-loving husband has said he sometimes skips some bits to get to “the story.” So Nance is able to attract both the aviation detail-lovers and readers who like a strong story.

  • There is a distinct place for experts who fill pages with the proof of how things work.
  • There is an even wider space for storytellers who use just enough expert information to bring reality to their plot.

Life is all about plots—how people react to circumstances. The details are there to bolster believability.


Contact me directly with an email and let’s discuss YOUR book project!

Sandra Haven, Editor

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