Declutter your text: Don’t dump details

There is such a thing as too much information.

I know how tempting it is for beginning writers to tell the complete history of their world in chapter one, or to describe characters so thoroughly that no place is left for the imagination, backstory included. “Been there, done that,” like they say.

When you have a very detailed image of a character or place, or when you’ve spent hours over hours working on world building, it’s normal to want to share all of it. But what keeps people reading is the plot, and an excess of information can get in the way, in much the same manner that an excess of pretty words can create a heavy and somewhat dull sentence (see Use modifiers in moderation). Anyway, there is only so much information that the reader can remember at once.

bird3a

Details are to be sparkled, like spices. I like to compare words with images. Look at the picture on the left. You see the shape of a bird’s body, hints of feathers, a closed eye and an open beak, from which a heart is coming. You don’t have to think to see that 1) it’s a bird and 2) it’s singing a love song. Simple, yet effective. Stripping your text to its bare essentials is a great way to understand what the bare essentials are. Once you understand that, it’s easier to manage huge amounts of details, should you decide that simplicity doesn’t suit your style.

I like to pretend that I am writing a mystery, and what needs to be discovered is what characters look like, especially inside. If my lead female is an undiagnosed autistic, for example, I don’t just go and say it. There are loads of undiagnosed high-functioning autistic people out there, and they don’t go wearing a label on their forehead. But they go interpreting people’s words too literally, and they go anxious that they will miss social cues and embarrass themselves, etc. Instead, I show my lead female paranoid of being accidentally rude, realizing too late what people’s intentions are, internally debating whether something was said in a sarcastic way or not. And I show her pissed off when she feels like others think she’d dumb because she has trouble figuring out social interactions. I don’t even have to say that’s she’s been picked on because of it in the past. It’s backstory sans backstory.

Same if my lead male is pushy: I show him pushing and pushing until the other characters feel he’s overstepping the boundaries, and then I show him trying to restrain himself from pushing too hard, because of course that’s been reproached to him in the past. It might even have cost him a girlfriend or ten. Again, backstory sans backstory. Both examples also illustrate the right interpretation of “show, don’t tell,” which I used to find tricky since stories are inherently “told”.

Every time I write something that is not immediately linked to the plot, I ask myself:
blue flower3

  1. Does it reinforce the characters, the themes, the scene or the voice/tone?
  2. Does it provide the story with an important element, like a hook, a comic relief, a change of pace?
  3. Could I write it in a more concise way, integrated into a plot-oriented scene?

Sometimes I’ll ask myself those questions during the first draft stage, but most of the time, it’s during the second draft… and all the ones that follow.

Of course, sometimes bits of historical information dumps are necessary, or a character’s backstory is an integral part of the plot, and such like. When that happens, there are a number of ways to make those more immediately interesting: you can insert a bit of history to slow the pace between two scenes heavy in action, for example. Or a sweet memory can add some relief to an otherwise angsty main plotline.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this post! You can check out the following articles for more writing advice on how to declutter your texts or subscribe to be notified when I post a new article. Take care and happy writing!

Other posts in this series: Narrow your scopeUse modifiers in moderation, Beware of repetitions.

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20 thoughts on “Declutter your text: Don’t dump details

  1. Hi, found you on community post. This is so well put, and is almost the EXACT process I go through when writing! You have explained this so well. I hope every new writer reads this post, it is the advice they NEED to hear.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Ok it is written and I’m assuming that it’s from your heart but then it is a lot of words that really could be done without but then a gin it is fun to write, to see what you yourself can come up with and yes some is clutter but it all came from oneself, which is self sustaining

      Like

    • I lost my thoughts when I started finger pointing I’m so sorry but isn’t it great to be able to air out.in public this is so great. I’ll bet many have written just to be writing & have surprised themselves and it’s nice that these instruments can decern your thought direction, so fantastic, our Father in heaven has really stretched our minds, pls thank Him so that He will give us more remember to take time to thank the source of inspiration

      Like

  2. You have stated the subject very well and in a soft fashion I like to feel that the reader or hearer will have the info or story in their minds to reflect on every now and then as my Sunday school class, just have the story lesson info in their heads or minds

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Excellent piece. You demonstrated the concept in your post: clean, direct, concise. Illustrations without overdoing it. You sound as if you’ve studied and practice your art.

    Any “best of” fiction books you recommend to help a new author learn some fundamentals? I have Story Grid (Shawn Coyne), Story Engineering (Larry Brooks) and Story (Robert McKee) on my bookshelf, but I’m always good for more :-).

    Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh, I didn’t know Story Grid. Did you find it useful?

      It’s not particularly fiction-oriented, but a really good book on writing is “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser. It’s one of those books that every writer should read.

      Other than that, I liked KM Weiland’s free book 5 Secrets of Story Structure. It’s more “practical” than Story Engineering. Also clearer and better written, if you ask me. It’s a complement on her book “Structure Your Novel”, which I haven’t read, but I thought it was an awesome complement on Story Engineering. I am currently working my way through “Outlining Your Novel” in an effort to be less terrible at outlining, and I’m finding it a great resource.

      Finally, there’s Anne Lamott’s Bird by bird. It’s more about the “writer’s life” than the theory behind writing, but it’s vastly interesting and incredibly well-written.

      Good luck on your journey! ^_^

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thanks for so many suggestions. I have Bird by Bird but haven’t read it yet; I may now need to.

        Story Grid was helpful for me because it was the first book I was exposed to that approached the subject of writing from a “how to get published” perspective. There is also a blog he does with another guy that goes into the topics of genre and things you have to have in books (and the importance of knowing necessary elements in whatever genre you’re writing in.). He also has a very detailed analysis he does, as an editor, when analyzing a book and trying to figure out why it is or isn’t working. Some of those tools are, if I recall, available for free on his web site. Definitely worth checking out, in particular for folks who have little to no understanding of the process. He also gets into non-fiction but the focus is fiction.

        Thanks again for your suggestions. I’m keeping a list and they just got added!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this article! After years of neglect, I just dusted off my pen and started writing again. I find it helpful to take a break and re-read a written section with fresh eyes to catch unhelpful tangents. As an avid reader, I admit to skimming over large sections of (boring) text to get back to the plot.

    Liked by 1 person

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