What Level of Detail is Enough for Fiction That Feels Alive?

Quoth Anonymous: When I write fiction, it feels too thin, more like the outline of a story or a script of one. How do I know how much detail to put in so it feels more like a real story?

When I think of detail in fiction, I remember the model railroading books I liked to read as a kid.

Some people run a loop around a Christmas tree with a garish locomotive and shiny plastic cars, and they call it good. Others paint a sheet of plywood green and put out a few wooden block houses.

And then some go all out with miniature trees, tiny people, gravel under the tracks, and dust on the boxcars.

What fascinated me as a kid about model trains was this level of detail that felt almost impossible for me to achieve with my limited patience, ability, dexterity, and funds.

When I write fiction, I almost always have to go back and add more detail because I write first drafts so quickly and with a sense of relief to have finished them at all. One of my editing passes, then, is to add more details:

  • Setting paragraphs at the beginnings of scenes so readers have a sense of where they are: “Out beyond Route 91, the orange groves give way to vast fields of yellowed grass and palmetto bushes.”
  • Physical descriptions within the text itself, usually based on what the characters would likely perceive: “What I noticed first about him was that he had a tattoo of my wife on his arm, and she was shirtless.”
  • Emotional perceptions, including judgments about the environment: “Grandma’s house was always a hellhole growing up, with fleas surging at your ankles from the puke green carpet like they wanted you to rescue them.”
  • Emotional reactions: “So that’s what she thought, that I’d abandoned my son?”

When we talk about detail in fiction, it usually means some critical mass of specificity when the prose lulls the reader’s brain into experiencing the events you’re describing instead of just hearing them as a checklist. (John Gardner calls this ‘the fictive dream.’)

That critical mass is different for different readers, but the good news is that it’s actually lower than you might worry; we really just need enough detail to get our brains filling in the rest. That threshold depends upon a reader’s experience with the time, place, or subject.

If I want to simulate, say, a dorm room at the University of Florida, I can do that in several ways depending upon the reader’s experience:

  • For my sister who lived in South Hall eight years before I did, I can say, “a room on the third floor facing the Mudfest field,” and she’ll get it.
  • For a UF student (likely of the past), I might have to add a little more: “one of those old brick dorms from the 60s across from the O Dome on Stadium Road.”
  • For other people familiar with dorms or even governmental buildings, I might go a bit further and say, “The dorm could have been built anywhere from 1940 to 1970, with its interior concrete block walls thick with layers of institutional white paint, floors of speckled linoleum, and furniture build by IKEA’s prison labor division from a soft blond wood.”

How much is too much? That’s harder to say than how much is too little (where nobody can quite see or feel what’s going on), but one good way to know is by the perception of the characters. What do THEY notice about it? What do they interact with every day? What annoys them, touches them, sparks memory in them, or represents something to them?

A smudge on the wall at that dorm for one student is a reminder that this is worse than home, but for another, it means the spot where she painted a temporary mural with her best friend for spirit week.

So detail is really emotional specificity as much as physical specificity, perhaps more so. We see with our hearts more than our minds.

That means we see weird things.

In the first episode of Twin Peaks, there’s a moment that people thought was strange and absurd and pointless at the time where Agent Cooper and Sheriff Truman go into a conference room at the police station and see a mounted buck’s head lying on the table because it fell off a wall.

“That’s so random,” people liked to say.

No, it isn’t. (Well, with Lynch, it might have been intuitively random.)

For one thing, that’s actually more realistic than a “normal” conference room in TV world because yeah, things fall off walls in the real world and people work around them.

For another, it says a lot about this place and its people:

  • Hunting (and perhaps by extension, the natural world) is important to them. Nobody’s weirded out or upset by a buck’s head.
  • Formality is not as important; it’s not odd to hang a trophy in a government office, nor is it odd to leave it there until someone gets a chance to hang it back up.
  • People there go with the flow of things instead of freaking out or demanding a repair or asking weird questions.
  • This police force may not be the big time where things like this wouldn’t be allowed to happen (or persist).

Why does this work as a detail? Because of Will’s Law of Detail:

Weird is normal. Normal is cliché.

Your mom doesn’t work in an office; she works in HR at the mannequin factory. Your dad didn’t go to the store; he went to Big Lots to buy a plastic colander to rinse out a motorcycle’s carburetor.

When you look closely at anything in the real world, you see that everything is weird. Everything is random. And it’s the random that’s realistic, not the planned.

What does a living room have in it? A couch, a loveseat, a couple of chairs, a coffee table, a TV. What does YOURS have in it? The remote for the TV that’s taped up because the battery hatch fell off. A water bottle drowning between two cushions soon to disappear forever. An end table with cat scratches across the top.

If you go with the weird and telling details that strike at a character’s emotions in the moment, you’re closer to the “right” amount of description than you’d be with a simple inventory.

There’s no such thing as typical in your life, and there shouldn’t be in your fiction, either.