All in the Details

A writer's first audience is themselves. The ideas that they envision, the characters that they create, and the plot lines they weave, are written out by the writer, for the writer. These story elements need not be well articulated at first. The writer knows what they mean. Once a new writer starts to shed their newness, they begin to write for their second audience: the reader.

The reader doesn't have the details of the story yet. They know only what the writer tells them. But that doesn't mean they will draw the same out of the writer's words, that the writer meant to put into them. The reader brings with them their own literary palette along with their own understandings, prejudices, and stereotypes. If I can't stand the smell of fried eggs, comparing a horrid smell to an omelet isn't going have the intended effect on a reader that loves eggs. New writers often have similar issues in their writing--something I call the vague detail problem.

You've seen it before. Let's be honest. You've done it at least once yourself. We all have. The grand daddy of all vague details, the dreaded word "strange." You're writing a Sci Fi, Fantasy, Mystery, Paranormal, or Horror story. You want the reader to take notice of a certain character, fireplace, magic stone, alien pod, or puddle on the floor. What do you do? In a moment of weakness, you use the dreaded vague adjective.

You know what you mean. Right? But the reader doesn't. The word "strange," doesn't mean anything on it's own. Aside from strange, words can also be vague when combined with ideas that they don't apply to. "Hollow," is a good example of a meaningful word that becomes vague when used unconventionally. I'll make up some sentences to show what I mean.

The strange man spoke in a hollow tone.

This sentence sounds really good. You'll find sentences and descriptions like this in the work of new(and some published) authors, but aside from sounding good, it means pretty much nothing. It tells me nothing about the man. I have no idea what a hollow tone sounds like. I know what a hollow log sounds like when you knock on it, but what does that have to do with a speaking voice? Here's another one.

The stench of the alien ship assaulted his nostrils as the mysterious, dark figure gave a fateful nod.

This sentence looks pretty good. If you skim over it, you might not see what the problem is with it, but there's a lot wrong with it. For one, we get that the alien ship smells bad, but otherwise, we have no idea what it smells like. We, as readers, can't identify with the word "stench" alone without more detail. Does it smell like fried eggs? Because that's definitely a very unpleasant smell to me.

What does the figure look like? We have no idea. The word "mysterious" is just like "strange." It does nothing for the reader. If you don't believe me, explain to me the difference between a regular cookie and a mysterious one. Ask 20 people that question, and you might get 20 different answers. Letting the reader fill in their own major details might sound really great in practice, but it will get you wildly unpredictable results with a high possibility of the reader feeling totally lost after a while when their interpretation doesn't fit anymore and they have to try and relearn what's going on. Don't do that to your reader.

The word "dark" doesn't really do anything for us either. Is the figure dark because it's in the shadows? Is the figure's clothing dark in color? Is the figure dark because its face is obscured in some way? We have no idea. I ended with "a fateful nod" to make another point. You just about never see the word "fateful" in good writing. It's another word that tells nothing to the reader. Can you tell the difference between a fateful nod and a regular one? The word "fateful" is supposed to tell the reader that there's a significance to what it describes, but a significance that won't be obvious until later. Unfortunately, how the reader will interpret "this might be important later," will vary wildly. As a writer, you never want to give up that much control over your connection with how the reader will experience your story as you craft it to be.


  1. I try to give a fair amount of attention to detail, but if I had to pay a fine for every time I used the words "strange" or "mysterious", they would have locked me away a long time ago. Sometimes it's laziness. Sometimes you get carried away and you grab the reader by the throat and yell, "Feel this way, dammit!", which as you point out, never works.

    This is along the lines of the old "show don't tell" adage, or as Mark Twain put it, "Don't tell me she was an elderly woman. Drag the old bag out onto the stage and let's have look at her."...or something to that effect. Mood is always better conveyed by those little touches of appropriate detail rather than throwing a bunch of adjectives at the reader. You don't tell them the night was "haunting". You describe the fog, the damp chill, and the wolves howling in the distance.

    This is one of those lessons that I know in my heart, but I don't always live up to.

  2. "The night was haunting." That's another great example. But yeah, I'm guilty of letting these vague descriptions slip by as well, and I kick myself when my critique groups spot them.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Very interesting and enlightening post. It's so difficult to read something blind when you've penned it but that's what another challenge of being a writer is all about. It's also good if the editor picks up on some aspects of this the writer missed.

    Thanks for shedding some laser lights on the dreaded dusk of what could have been muddled waters of writing. :)

  4. I never gave attention to details
    but now I will.
    very informative post for me !!

  5. Great post. I wrote something about this recently-- about the importance of being specific as a writer. You and only you as the writer have the power to illustrate the story for your reader. So be specific with your details!


  6. Great advice here. Definitely worth taking into account and using in my own writing. Description is something you have to use well and be very careful with.

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  7. I love what you write about the reader's interpretation varying wildly. In writing and in movies, the creator's energy and intention may have more impact on the reader/viewer than the actual words. There's a heart connection - or not!

  8. Although I save it for the second draft, passive or vague writing needs to be more specific and punchier. It's great that you provided examples, and yes we all do it (or at least I do).