When told to provide descriptions and details, inexperienced writers often tend to include too many details, details that have no purpose or that are too much information. How do you know just how much detail to include? My first rule for writing details is to be exact. No matter what you are describing, use the most exact words you can find. Use appropriate terms while avoiding too much jargon, especially if your jargon limits readership severely or makes your writing of interest only to those with the same technical knowledge you are writing about. The exact term can mean the difference between half a dozen words and a single word or two. It also allows you to get directly to the point without digressing in explanations that are not necessary.
The next rule you need to remember is to make sure the details you provide are necessary and important to the story. You might describe a tree and want to write about the multicolored shading of the multitude of leaves; how the branches might twist and turn and scars from nature pockmark the bark; how a squirrel is tucked into an old knot that has rotted out, or the roots jut out of the ground like knees and tentacles. All these descriptions are good and create a wonderful image of a tree, but why would your reader need to see it that way? Does one of the characters see it that way? Unless a character in your story has intimate knowledge of the tree and needs to see all those details—maybe because the character is a botanist or a birdwatcher or a treehugger or someone stuck in that tree for long enough to observe all the little details—there is no need for that kind of detail. If it doesn’t involve the characters, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to moving the plot ahead, cut it out. If it doesn’t enhance the reader’s understanding of the characters or the plot, cut it out. If it doesn’t contribute to the overall mood or tone of the story, cut it out.
When you do include details, try to create a bigger picture for things that are encountered as part of a larger setting: a barrel of water instead of raindrops that fill the barrel; a forest instead of individual trees; a blanket of snow instead of hundreds of individual snowflakes. For things characters encounter intimately—for instance, a character who is having the worst time trying to fall asleep will notice everything, from the rustling of leaves outside the window to the lumps in his pillow and the creases on the sheets under him. On the other hand, if a character crashes into bed and falls right asleep, he’s not going to notice whether the sheets are silk or jersey, if the pillows are flat or fluffy, if the birds are chirping outside his window, or even if the bathroom floor is filthy.
Inexperienced writers also have a tendency to want to explain as much as they can. It is important to remember that readers also know a lot of things and it isn’t necessary to explain everything. Unless a character has a very unusual way of putting together a sandwich, there’s no need to explain how a sandwich is made step by step. You need to consider what is common knowledge and assume that your readers will know what is generally known. There’s no need to explain how a car is driven or how a house is built unless it is an unusual car. Even science fiction stories set in space ships don’t go into great detail about how the space ship operates, unless characters are involved in the operation thereof.
It’s exactly what I tell my writing students when creating character profiles and settings. You can write a complete character profile including biographical details, a detailed physical description, and a psychological profile, but not all of that will appear in the story; even if you eventually reveal everything about your character, you certainly should not dump all that information on your readers in a single logorrheic discharge. In the same way we don’t discover everything about a person or place in a single sitting or a single visit, you should only reveal as much details as are encountered and necessary at any given time. Many times, your details will and should only be part of a sentence or two, rarely a paragraph, certainly not a full page. Any physical descriptions should also be interspersed with actions and dialogue. A character’s long hair might be revealed when he tosses his head and his hair flips backwards like a horse’s mane. A weakness for chocolate might be revealed by a bowl of assorted chocolate candies on a character’s kitchen counter or as a centerpiece on a table. It all ties in with the art of showing rather than telling. Filling your prose with descriptions leads with a tendency to tell rather than to show. If you want to create minute detailed descriptions of everything, you might want to try your hand at poetry or creative non-fiction.
Too much detail can be tedious and lead a story away from from its plot. Too many explanations can be tiring and leave nothing to the imagination. They can also burden the reader with too much information. Sometimes, it’s really better to leave things to the reader’s imagination. That’s one of the good things about reading–it stimulates the imagination, and your writing should aim to do that. If you want to explain things, in extensive detail, you might want to try writing non-fiction instead, or instructional materials. Sometimes, you need to give the reader the benefit of the doubt. Readers don’t pick up your book or story knowing nothing. You need to trust that your reader is already knowledgeable about many things, which is why they’re able to read fiction. Unless, of course, you’re writing encyclopedia entries–even then, you need to assume the readers already have certain basic knowledge. Try to think the way the characters would. Describe and explain things according to how the characters see them or experience them. Provide information that will be important to the characters and that will help your characters deal with their problems. Whether or not your character finds the information immediately or later in your story, you have set things up in a world your characters live in, as opposed to blending your world with your story world. If your characters don’t need explanations for certain things, your readers don’t need them either. If your details don’t help your characters or the story, your readers don’t need them. Those are your ultimate cues for how much to include in your fiction.