How to Identify and Remove Trivial Detail From Your Stories

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Today’s guest post is excerpted from Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life by Roz Morris (@NailYourNovel).

Writers are often advised to fill their scenes with rich detail—to show, not tell. However, if taken too far, you can clutter or bloat your story with too much irrelevant description. If you provide scene upon scene of character downtime, each conversation word for word, and every beat of inconsequential action, this can be exhausting or boring for the reader.

One of my clients wrote a long scene about her protagonist spending a quiet evening at home, which amounted to several pages of inconsequential phone calls. Brenda called and the protagonist talked to her. Then her stepfather, then a colleague, then the residents’ association. What did they say? Nothing much. It was just humans catching up.

It was certainly realistic, but the reader would be overwhelmed or wondering what importance these calls have to the story. They would be trying to keep track of everyone—she has an Auntie, Mum, Bizzy the cat­sitter, Pete the friend, Steve the other friend. He said this, she said that. They talked about someone called Paul, or was it Pauline? And who exactly is Brenda?

This is fine if it’s important to make the reader ask those questions. They might advance the plot or echo the theme. But if they are only there for atmosphere, we need to treat the material differently.

The client and I reframed the scene, considering what the reader had to take away. There was nothing to learn from the dialogue, and it didn’t matter who called. But we wanted to create the impression that the character was busy and had friends. If this scene was a photographic composition, these callers might be shown in the background, maybe out of focus. They would add depth but wouldn’t distract from the important subject. So, instead of showing the conversations in real time, we shrank them to a summary. In the end, it worked best to turn them into messages, with the protagonist’s reactions:

Brenda called. She’ll want to talk about Fred but I’m too tired for that right now. Stepfather—darn, I was going to give him the number of that insurance company. Steve from the Swindon office—can’t it wait until after the weekend? The residents’ association—yes, I’d said I’d help with the posters for the garage sale. Can I get away with not calling back until tomorrow?

That thicket of trivial talk shrank to one paragraph. We now had a character with an authentic life. It indicates some of her routines and obligations and the people she might talk about, but it wasn’t given undue prominence. Indeed, it would be better included as texture in a scene where something more significant was happening. (Scenes should have more than one function to keep a story moving, plus they are more satisfying than scenes that merely sketch background.)

The same principle applies to characters with interesting pasts. You don’t have to tell us every detail. Indeed, if you pay out background in glimpses, you can create more depth because you let the reader use intuition.

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel makes veiled references to Thomas Cromwell’s roguish past before he comes to King Henry’s court. She hints that he might have killed a man. Other characters occasionally refer to it as a rumor. Cromwell himself dwells on an unclear memory fragment. Later in the book, he teaches his sons that a blow that can kill, and we wonder where that knowledge came from. But we never get a “reveal” scene to explain. It remains shady, to build Cromwell’s reputation, ruthlessness, and physical presence—for the other characters and also for the reader. Cromwell also suspects he may have fathered children in those lost years. This starts to trouble him as his own children mature, and his older self feels he would like to know these unknown others. Mantel might have brought this background forwards, but she keeps it as glimpses. This creates a curious and appealing vulnerability, making Cromwell a man with a human center. Glimpsed details make a character more real and true.

Of course, you may add detail for deliberate effect. Stieg Larsson begins The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with a character who receives mysterious pictures of flowers every year. Everything stops for a leisurely discourse on the kinds of blooms and where they grow, as though we were touring the book’s world with a magnifying glass. This eases us into the mindset of a detective, who can’t allow any observation to pass without evaluating and classifying it.

Background detail—and indeed back story—should be used with care. Too little and the characters act in a peculiar void. Too much, and the story is suffocated. But you can create inventive effects according to the way you defocus, hint, expand, and condense.

Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to LifeIf you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend you take a closer look at Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life by Roz Morris. Click here to download a sample to your Kindle.

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Roz Morris
Roz Morris lives in London. You’ll have seen her books on the bestseller lists but not under her name because she ghostwrote them for other people. She is now coming into the daylight with novels of her own. Her first is My Memories of a Future Life and her second is Life Form Three. She is also the author of the Nail Your Novel book series. Find out more at her Amazon author page, her blog and on Twitter at @Roz_Morris.
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    • Thanks, Shirley! A lot of the advice in the book is inspired by the problems that clients have. It’s always interesting to probe what their intentions are, then grapple a way to help them achieve it. There’s often a big difference between their aims and what comes across on the page.

      Glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for the comment!

  1. Great post, Roz! When I think of “show, don’t tell,” I think about the important stuff that I’m telling the reader in my novels and wonder if that information would be more effectively gleaned from an action, rather than from an internal dialogue. And more often than not, the answer is yes.

    • Dina – great to see you here. That’s a great point about showing not telling. It’s very easy to get into the swing of writing internal dialogue, or description, or external dialogue – rather than write a scene where the character does something. Musing definitely has its place, but decisions, actions, choices, leaps of faith seem to take more energy to write. Sometimes I think we get lulled by our prose, our internally explaining voice – perhaps because we know we are writing.

      On the other hand, internalisation is one of the strengths of novel prose – and certainly of more literary writers. We don’t have to be like movies, where everything is shown in action. Now I’ve probably just confused everybody…. If a character does stuff, takes action, it moves the plot along. So if they choose to muse about it instead, there has to be a good artistic reason. Which just goes to show writing is an art, not a science.

  2. Always great to see you, Roz. Your post reminds me of a manuscript I edited with pages and pages of back story dialogue dumping. Didn’t think I’d survive that one. It was boring to read those pages of dialogue as I journeyed miles from the real story. Once a reader gets bored and lost, s/he moves on to another book.

    • Hi Darrelyn – likewise! I’ve seen a lot of manuscripts like that. Extracting the info-dump is always a challenge. Most of us have an inbuilt need to say ‘before I tell you this, I’d better give you the background’. Instead we need to grab the reader with something more urgent, then wind their curiosity up to the point where they’ll welcome more background.

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  4. I can so relate to this.This is my big momentum breaker! (Think description like in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.”) I am aware I have this problem and that is the first step to fixing it. Lots of details get dumped in my second and third drafts. The trick is keeping the ones that move the story forward. : ) Thanks, Roz. This was very helpful.

    • Thank you, Judy. I’m just as bad. My initial drafts drown in unnecessary stuff, but as I edit I start to understand what the reader needs and what they don’t. It’s surprising how much can be condensed or submerged, and still be every bit as vivid as the long-winded version. More so, perhaps – as the reader is still willing to pay attention.

  5. Great post. This really seems like heart of the craft of good writing: culling the boring stuff, understanding why we included it, replacing or synthesizing, and expanding sections that would advance the story if they were shown and not told. I’m glad to learn that not everything needs to be shown.

    • Thanks, Ann! Love that point – ‘understanding why we included something’. The more we examine what we want from a scene we show, or a character’s trait, or a character’s opinion, the more we will be able to fine-tune the effect of our novel on the reader.

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  7. Great tips Roz! Some of my stories are suffering from suffocating background info and trivial matters but this article has helped me re-think and critically think about some of the editorial decisions I’m making. Thanks!

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  9. Actually, and with all due respect, if I were a reader and I came across the rewritten paragraph, I would groan. It’s boring and not well-crafted. If a scene is boring, and I have no doubt the several pages you cut was boring, just cut it. A novel need not proceed in a purely sequential manner. It can skip entire days, months, years. And while I agree thoroughly with the show don’t tell directives, it isn’t excessive telling to simply write, “The next morning . . .” or “When Character awoke . . .” or a million other phrases that show time’s passed.

    Thank you for reading this, and happy editing.

    • EL, if you found it boring, fair enough – and this rather shows the dangers of removing paragraphs from their context! In fact that particular scene had an important function for the reader, and as you’ll see, we then went on to explore whether it could be used in a more dynamic way so that it didn’t seem to stop the pace. However, that wasn’t germane to the particular problem I was discussing in this section, which was what you do with the lifelike minutiae of a character’s existence.
      Much depends on style, of course. Your own style might never have room for such a paragraph. And good for you – you know what you want. What’s treasure to one writer is trash to another. Likewise for readers.

      Also, you’re bang-on with your points about show not tell. As I was illustrating with the examples of Thomas Cromwell’s glimpsed past, the artistry is in understanding the effects, knowing when to use them and what you want to do. You’re right that sometimes we can say ‘That afternoon she went to the concert’.

      It was interesting talking to you – thanks for commenting.

  10. Thanks for the tips, Roz. The subject of how much description to use has come up a lot lately in the circles I visit. Your revised paragraph also reminds me of the “deep POV” material I’m currently reading. You get a feel for the moment (or a condensed period of time in this case) largely through the character’s reactions and internal dialog. It’s almost description by implication, and it’s a good example of what I like to call “just in time” description. I hope NYN:BCtL is doing well for you.

    • Hi Daniel! You’ve used that phrase ‘just in time’ description before and it’s a good principle.

      I often talk about ‘need to know’ – what does the reader need to know about a character, situation? Do they need it now or could it wait?
      It seems we’re on the same page…
      Thanks for your good wishes about the book.

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