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How can I minimise the "filler" text that I end up writing when fleshing out a scene with detail?

An appropriate level of detail seems to me to be a fundamental requirement for good prose. Whatever I may be trying to achieve in terms of characters, plot, etc., in the here-and-now of each paragraph, each sentence even, telling a story is not the same as writing an outline. There needs to be enough detail to make the story feel real.

However, I find myself agonising over the seeming randomness of the information that I add to a sentence, paragraph or scene, in order to flesh out the world of the story and make it convincingly real.

A working example... A Main Character walks into a shop, and by coincidence encounters some other important character; character development happens, plot happens, motivations and values are explored, painful choices are made, all that is great. But it will often feel wrong to just have two "talking heads". Rather, the story feels real when the shop is described, as well as the products, the other customers; the owner interacts with some of those other customers; we get an overview of the space, and a few telling details too; and the main character's actions are related to this environment, for instance she goes and sits down on that couch we just described, or looks into that mirror--while what is actually important is the conversation she is having.

But why is the couch brown? Or green? Or why is there a couch there at all? Why is the mirror on the wall, or on a stand? Why was the other customer an old lady with a large handbag--or a teenager, or...

I have three possible answers to my own question (given next, in increasing order of sophistication [obsessiveness?]), but they don't feel enough.

Answer 1: "just do it". Stop obsessing and make up some details, so as to make the story feel real. It doesn't matter what they are, so don't worry about it. And, in any case, your intuition should make the details interesting--just let yourself follow the theme, or atmosphere, of the story, and make up details that seem to fit. But stop obsessing. (Did I say stop obsessing?)

Answer 2: the details don't matter in terms of the sort of "content" that you might put in an outline, but there are other qualities that make prose good, which you cannot plan for. Prose has rhythm, and a "music" to it, and is infused with attitude, emotion, atmosphere. It can "show" a PoV character's frame of mind though its organisation. Not to mention that it can do worldbuilding, one tiny detail at a time. So whether the couch is brown or green may depend on whether the sound "brown" or "green", irrespective of the actual colours, fits in with the sound of that sentence. The metaphor used to describe the mirror may indicate how the PoV character is feeling, e.g. introspective, or full of self-loathing, or narcissistic--so start with the metaphor, and it does not matter what the mirror has to look like for the metaphor to actually describe it.

Answer 3: one of my favourite "principles" is that "every component of a story should have multiple functions". Basic example of the principle: we don't write an "action scene" with nothing but action in it, then a "character development scene" with no action and only dialogue or thoughts in it, then a "plot advancement scene", then an "emotion scene", etc.; rather [it is almost always better if] every scene does all of these things. Well, apply this principle to the "details" as well: every word can foreshadow something, or do a little worldbuilding, or be described in a way that reflects how the PoV character is feeling. So make a list of important ideas that are not the main purpose of the current scene, and draw on them to flesh out the details of this scene. E.g., put in a couch that somebody will trip over later during an action-heavy scene; or use a fabric for it that is in short supply due to something important in the backstory; or make it as black as the PoV character's despair.

But this couch, which will be tripped over, which is made of a fabric that is in scarce supply, and whose colour reflects the protagonists' mood... Why is it on the left side of the shop? Why are the cushions round? Why is it a three-seater?

Indeed, at some point, maybe it's just bad to try and make every single word meaningful in some way... But if so... Why green and not purple?

Edit: re-reading my question as posted, it seems to focus too much on the sentence-level details, but that's just because of the examples I picked. My question applies more broadly. For example, say I have a scene in a forest. There will be a chance encounter between two characters. They will have competing objectives, and there will be an unfair power dynamic between them. There will be values explored and choices made etc etc etc. But is the forest on the side of a mountain? What specific trees and other plants are there? And it's not just about describing the scene. How do the characters meet? Does one surprise the other? Or does the PoV character hear the other from a mile away? Does she try to hide, then change her mind and show herself? The actions leading up to the meeting may be necessary for the chance meeting to feel real, but if I actually only really care about what happens after the meeting, they may be "randomly choosable details", too.

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    The pain of a first draft, I guess... – NofP Sep 23 at 15:16
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Setting is character. That is, setting functions in a story very much the way secondary characters function: it shapes and reflects the character of the protagonist, and it functions to propel the protagonist along their arc.

To a certain extent, we are shaped by the people around us, and by the environment we live in. You will grow up differently in a Pennsylvania mining town than you will in a Manhattan penthouse, regardless of your genetics. You will also grow up differently if you go to a poor school or a rich one, if your parents are scholars or farmers or drug addicts, if they are introverts, extroverts, or perverts.

But you can also choose both your environment and the people you associate with to a significant degree. You can move. You can choose different friends. You can cleve to your family or abandon them.

How your protagonist is shaped by the characters around them is fundamental to how you portray who they are, and to how you set them on their story arc towards their crisis and denouement. And, similarly, the choices they make about who to hang out with and how to treat those people tells us who they are, and thus how they will behave and react to the events of their story arc.

Setting does exactly the same thing. It shapes who the character is. The choices they make about where to live, or how to decorate their living quarters, tell us who they are, what they value, and how they will react to things. (Read Charles Ryders descriptions of his rooms at Oxford in Brideshead Revisited for a perfect example of this.)

Does it matter that the couch is old and brown and stained? Yes, because it tells us either that the character is growing up in a poor household that cannot afford better furniture, or that the money is being spent on something else. Other details are needed to complete the picture. Is the couch next to an extensive liquor cabinet? Is there a battered miners lamp sitting on the arm rest, or a syringe and a piece of rubber tubing. Is there a Bob Marley poster on the wall and a battered paperback copy of The Lord of the Rings lying on the floor next to an empty pizza box? Together these details paint very different pictures of the protagonist's living arrangements, all of which suggest different circumstances or a different character.

This is the function of detail in fiction. It maps the influences which shape the character and the arc of their story. They help us understand, in small ways and in great, how and why the events of the story unfold as they should. Thus they are never arbitrary.

This is not to say that a different choice of details could not achieve substantially the same effect. Just as different characters could drive the story to the same climax, so different details of setting could do the same thing. But, nonetheless, the function of detail is precise and clinical, and it always matters.

9

You are right in thinking both that details are needed - they make the scene come alive, and that the details shouldn't be random.

I use the scenery details first and foremost to set the mood of a scene. You use a meeting in a forest as an example. Is your character comfortable in the forest? Does she know it well, is it a safe environment for her? Then she might notice the tracks some small animal has left, hear the song of a familiar bird (not "a bird", but a particular bird - if I want to convey that she knows the environment, she'd recognise the call). She'd recognise the particular kinds of trees, and use positive or neutral terms to describe them. (E.g. 'knotted' rather than 'gnarled'.)
If, on the other hand, I wished to create a sense of menace, "a bird" might cry above, "something" would rustle in the undergrowth, a fallen tree might block the character's path.
The details that do not help me create the mood would not be there.


Tolkien is known for describing environment in great detail, so let's use the LotR as an example.

The sun was beginning to get low and the light of afternoon was on the land as they went down the hill. So far they had not met a soul on the road. This way was not much used, being hardly fit for carts, and there was little traffic to the Woody End. They had been jogging along again for an hour or more when Sam stopped a moment as if listening. They were now on level ground, and the road after much winding lay straight ahead through grass-land sprinkled with tall trees, outliers of the approaching woods. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, book I, chapter 3 - Three is Company

Sunset is still safe, but darkness is coming. The hobbits are still in the safety of the Shire, but... There's nothing outstanding about there being nobody on the road, but help isn't going to show up if they need it. The road is straight, so there's nowhere to hide. And approaching woods - again, like the sunset, more threatening environment ahead. Tolkien creates a sense of discomfort: everything should be safe, but... (Then comes their first encounter with a nazgul)

Twilight was about them as they crept back to the lane. The West wind was sighing in the branches. Leaves were whispering. Soon the road began to fall gently but steadily into the dusk. ibid

Growing sense of disquiet, a short while after meeting the nazgul.

As they walked, brushing their way through bush and herb, sweet odours rose about them. Gollum coughed and retched; but the hobbits breathed deep, and suddenly Sam laughed, for heart’s ease not for jest. They followed a stream that went quickly down before them. Presently it brought them to a small clear lake in a shallow dell: it lay in the broken ruins of an ancient stone basin, the carven rim of which was almost wholly covered with mosses and rose-brambles; iris-swords stood in ranks about it, and water-lily leaves floated on its dark gently-rippling surface; but it was deep and fresh, and spilled ever softly out over a stony lip at the far end.
Here they washed themselves and drank their fill at the in-falling freshet. Then they sought for a resting-place, and a hiding-place; for this land, fair-seeming still, was nonetheless now territory of the Enemy. They had not come very far from the road, and yet even in so short a space they had seen scars of the old wars, and the newer wounds made by the Orcs and other foul servants of the Dark Lord: a pit of uncovered filth and refuse; trees hewn down wantonly and left to die, with evil runes or the fell sign of the Eye cut in rude strokes on their bark.
ibid, book IV, chapter 4 - Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit

Here the details serve to juxtapose the beauty of Ithilien with the threat of Mordor. The hobbits have a moment of respite, but they are still in danger. The familiarity of the plants, the water spilling "softly", the "clear" lake, all create the sensation of safety, while pits of uncovered refuse remind us of the enemy.


So why is your couch green? Perhaps because the proprietor has particular design sensibilities. But if there is no particular reason for it to be green, why not make it "comfy" instead? Or "shabby", if that fits better with the mood you have in mind? (Instead of saying it's shabby, you can describe worn surfaces, tears, threads coming out etc. "Comfy" can be soft, inviting...)

And it's the same with whether your character is surprised by another character or hears them from afar - it's about the mood you want to create for the scene.

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    Genuine curiosity, why do you say that 'knotted' is more positive or neutral than 'gnarled'? – Spagirl Sep 25 at 10:09
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I've always struggled with sensory details in my writing --I'm a dialog-and-plot kind of writer. But for me, writing details really came alive when I discovered your number three approach. When done right, the details offer you so much opportunity for layered, immersive storytelling. Perfunctory, by-the-book, generic "filler" details definitely aren't worth the space they take up on the page.

For that reason I think it's NOT overkill for every word and every detail to mean something. Every detail IS important in the work of the great writers. But the key is to not foreground the work you're doing. It should feel organic, even when it isn't, and operate largely at a subconscious level for the reader. If the reader is noticing how clever or how hardworking you are, it's not a good thing.

I've elaborated more on the ways of using details in answers elsewhere, but you seem to have a good handle on the general idea --you want to put the reader in the head, and mind, and perspective and history of the character, and not just give a dry recital of the objects in the room.

3

The line between something being an 'interesting/critical detail', and 'fluff/time wasting filler' is a fuzzy arbitrary decision best made on a case by case basis. As such we decide what to cut or what to expand based on what works for our story at hand.

There are two key metrics to consider when trying to decide if a section of text really belongs as is, needs to be rewritten, needs to be expanded, or should be cut entirely.

  1. Is it interesting to read, and does it provide a satisfactory level of detail/content.

  2. Does it fit well with the overarching piece? [Or, in the case where something ranks impressively high on the first metric, does the rest of the piece fit well with it...]


One of the best examples I've been given on why we should address the question of 'useful detail' vs 'needless fluff' with care is that we can carry things to the truly absurd:

"Character has problem. Character resolves problem. The end."

Reducing the majority of stories ever written to three highly questionable sentences shows us that we can obviously take various 'pruning' ideas much too far...

So the ultimate answer to the question boils down to what we are trying to achieve in a book with regards to overall look, feel, tone, etc.


This in turn raises a secondary question which needs to be answered before we can make much headway: What is the look, feel, tone, etc that we are after?

We answer this either by sitting down to carefully consider what we want to write, or by detailed review of what has already been written to try and pull and answer out of our existing work. But it is important to remember that writing is highly flexible. What we set out to write is not always what we have by the end of things. Do not be scared to re-evaluate your work at various stages! [But do be careful of trapping yourself in unproductive loops while you waffle back and forth.]


Do you want your story to stay 'tight' and 'action packed', where everything keeps moving forward with a sort of excitable energy? Then your story will likely benefit from a 'less is more' for details in many cases, with careful consideration as to whether a specific point is worth adding/leaving in or not while you quickly move through your scenes.

On the other hand maybe you want a story that feels more like a long warm bath. Letting the reader slowly soak in a given scene gives us some rather different priorities where the writing decisions shift from 'can I safely gloss over this' and towards something more along the lines of 'how best can I phrase this detail'. Here ordering of details and 'setting the scene' can make or break the feel of a piece, and directly impact a reader's connection or view of a character. [Consider how a chapter on a character stuck in a waiting room may play out. What that character looks at or thinks, and in what order, impacts how the reader thinks about the character.]


As we gain a firm grasp of what we want overall in a piece of writing we gain a better ability to gauge how any given section helps with our goal: Does a section add to the overall work, does it drag things down, or would the overall work be improved by expanding on it?

Also keep in mind that not all readers belong in the same audience. Give careful consideration to your target reader, and be wary of trying to cast too broad of a net! Remember that even the highest ranked authors on best seller lists are still only reaching out to a relatively small chunk of overall readers.

3

I include detail because I think the job of the prose is to assist the imagination of the reader. If there is resonance on other levels, that's great, but it isn't a necessity in my book.

The reader needs to imagine a visual scene, an audio scene, a sensory scene. Just dialogue doesn't cut it, the talking heads and wall of dialogue feels quickly unrealistic.

Obviously in a movie script you can get away with this, the camera and sound-effects will provide all the sensory information. But in text, just dialogue, even though it often is the engine of the story, gets boring and falls flat, it is a purely intellectual exercise and feels divorced from reality. It is unrealistic.

People do things, see things, fiddle with things, use things, and are active in their world. They have feelings, even if those are hard to describe precisely.

When you read Galastel's excerpts from Tolkien, your imagination creates the setting, the sounds, the water and flowers and broken carvings covered in moss.

Do the details matter? Yes and no. They should be appropriate; if we explore a cave we don't expect flowers growing in there. A hospital looks like a hospital, not a hotel.

The details can also reflect a mood of the place, or affect the mood of the characters. Or be a contrast to it: Bing Crosby's "Singing In the Rain" demands Rain, but he is singing because he is happy and in love, despite the normally depressing connotations of rain.

That said, symbolism is not a requirement. In many cases the details are arbitrary. Whether the couch is tan or dark brown doesn't matter. What really matters is that you have to assist the reader in imagining the story with sight and sound, and at times smell and taste when those play an important sensory role. Is her kitchen at dinner odorless? Does she eat or drink without tasting anything? Does the campfire have a smell? Also when it matters to the characters, the weather: cold, heat, humidity, dryness, precipitation, lightning, thunder, wind or the lack thereof, is the sun blinding, painful to glimpse? Is it masked by clouds? Can you feel it on your skin?

Besides plotting and characterization, you are there to assist the reader in imagining a story. If you have a wall of dialogue, you have an under-imagined scene. If it goes on for more than three or four exchanges, it will bore the reader because their imagination dims, then goes dark, it becomes blind and deaf. You have created a sensory-deprivation chamber, and in there the mind wanders, or falls asleep.

That's not the experience you are aiming to create for your readers.

I always write concrete details, as I go, I spend a healthy percentage of my writing time with my eyes closed imagining every scene play out as if in a movie. Or not a movie: I have even done this for a conversation in a completely dark room, with two characters in separate beds talking, but unable to see a thing.

On re-read, I may eliminate some details, change them to more imaginative detail, or look for ways to make them more symbolic, or better fitting to the mood of the conversation. But at least I have something there to keep the reader's imagination from fading.

2

I think the textbook answer is: Does the detail contribute to the story? If you describe how a character's house is filled with guns and bombs, that tells us something very different about him than if his house is filled with flowers and framed poetry quotes.

A detail may prove relevant later. This is classic in mystery stories: The writer casually mentions that there is a plastic fork on the kitchen counter and later it turns out that this is the crucial clue that identifies the murderer.

Similarly, mentioning a detail early can make a later plot development seem less contrived. If you say in chapter 4 that the hero has a sword hanging on the wall as a decoration, and he explains how this sword was given to him by his father and it is an important symbol of their family history and that's why he has it hanging on the wall, and then in chapter 7 he yanks this sword off the wall and uses it to defend himself from the villain, that sounds "fair". But if in the middle of a fight scene you suddenly throw in, oh, by the way, the hero just happened to have a sword hanging on the wall, that sounds very contrived.

Really, though, the most useful test is: Is it interesting? If you mention that there is a clock on the wall and then launch into a 30 page description of the exact appearance and nature of this clock, perhaps a few clock collectors will find this interesting, but most readers will not. Or maybe you really can make readers say, "Wow! I never knew that clocks worked like that!"

So, say, if you're trying to paint a mental picture for the reader of what this shop looks like, it might be helpful to write, "There was an aisle full of car products, like oil and antifreeze and windshield wipers. The next aisle had snack foods, and the last had cheap children's toys." A detailed list of every item on the shelves, with brand name, size, list of ingredients, and a description of the package, that went on for pages and pages, would surely be mind-bogglingly boring.

1

why is the couch brown?

Because it's made of leather. Yes, some details are just details. But if it doesn't matter why say it?

why is the couch on the left side of the shop?

Because there's only one tv hook up and they wanted it to face the TV or some other practical reason...if it doesn't matter to the story WHY, then it isn't relevant to the reader, and therefore isn't something that the reader should care about or you should include.

If you take time to answer all the "Whys" you can possibly think of, which don't actually matter to serving the plot or story, it will bog down the reader. Might be fun, at times, but you can ruthlessly cut them. Unless they serve a particular purpose unless they accomplish something. But even IF they accomplish something from the list below, remember this: if several things establish mood, character or furthering the plot in a specific way, you have the option of cutting the "dead weight" later. Showing the same thing in different ways is good, but when it comes time to cut, knowing how many times you've said the same thing in different ways is useful, so you can cut the weakest or least well-written thing.

Setting details can accomplish a couple of things:

  • Move the plot along.
  • Establishing a mood/danger/stakes.
  • Establishing a character. The sofa's on the left side of the room because it makes hard to open the door, giving your protagonist time to make an escape out the window, establishing that your protagonist often needs time to escape out of a window or is paranoid.

So setting, like every other detail, has to do its work in furthering the story. Every detail given has to do a job, be it setting the scene so that the action later makes sense (moving the plot along), setting the mood (@Galastel's example is perfect on that level), and showing the character through the setting, whether it be how they interact with the setting, or what it says about them as a person.

Finally, you can tell us what a setting is like in order to SHOW something, but you shouldn't simply be telling. If you do that, that's when it becomes tedious. Know what you are showing, then examine whether it's simply a side note or if it serves the story in a meaningful way.

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