Don’t Get Mired Down in the Details
We’ve all heard the old chestnut “God is in the details.” Basically, it means that details are important.
A great story is built up of tiny little details. The single sentence spoken by Character X at the beginning of Chapter One may become instrumental in the outcome of Chapter Forty-Six, or the carelessness in Chapter Four could cause the heroine/hero to fail in Chapter Twenty-Two. To build a complete novel, you need to have many of those little details worked out.
Unfortunately, sometimes we can spend TOO MUCH time working on the details. We spend hours agonizing over every character’s name, the details of every location, the miniscule plot points and conversation turns that drive the story forward. You end up so mired down in those details that you never really end up writing the book.
Want to avoid that? Here are a few tips that have helped me to find the right balance between too much and too little detail:
Plan the Important Stuff
Before I sit down to write, I know (more or less) what the story will be about—the theme or the questions the story will answer. I know my main characters enough that I can get their voice right, but not so well that there’s no room for the character to flex, stretch, and grow according to the story.
As an example, in my Urban Fantasy story Heaven’s Assassin, I knew my character was blind, and that she had angelic ability to see the “fires of life” burning inside people. But when I sat down to write her, I fell in love with the Pakistani name Shabina. The use of a hijab helped to provide an added layer of disguise as well as a connection to her Pakistani father. I had the important stuff planned (blindness, ability, general story outline, etc.), but I let the character dictate the smaller details.
Know Where the Story is Going
This goes hand in hand with the previous point. When I sit down to write a story, I always have a general idea of what’s going to happen. I know the character’s beginning situation, where they’re going to end up, and many of the steps that lead them to get there.
However, it’s more of a loose framework than a step-by-step outline. As long as I know what needs to happen, I have a bit of “wiggle room” to let my character experience life in the story in a natural way.
Having a detailed outline may work for some people, but you may want a bit of breathing room for the story to develop naturally. Keep the story on track with a general outline, and let the growing creation help guide your characters and locations.
Figure out important names first.
There are some names that MUST be figured out before you write the story. The character of Viola from Child of the Night Guild had to have that name because of the viola bushes her mother planted with her.
The character of The Hunter of Voramis had that name before I ever planned out the story. I highly recommend figuring out the names of the central characters before sitting down to write.
As for the rest, let a name generator guide you!
For my fantasy, I like to use the RinkWorks Name Generator. It spits out around 100 names at a time, and I scan the names to see what ideas they spark. I’ll often put together two or three of the suggested names, or one will jump out at me. Much of the time, I don’t even need a generator because a name just pops into my head.
The same goes for characters, religious orders, mystical diseases, monsters, and all the rest. Figure out the IMPORTANT names beforehand, and let the rest come as you write.
Do Research Before Sitting Down
But not too far ahead of time.
When writing Thief of the Night Guild, I knew my main character (Ilanna) was going to break into a vault. How much did I know about vaults before writing the story? Less than you’d think!
But that didn’t bother me. I didn’t need to understand vaults for at least 15 chapters, so I sat down to write those chapters. The day I reached the part when I needed to understand vault architecture, I spent a few hours researching vault doors, construction, locking mechanisms, fail-safes, etc.
Research is a VITAL part of making your book accurate, but you don’t need to know everything about everything to write a good book. Do your research when you need it, and don’t spend hours learning something that will only take up a few paragraphs or pages in your novel.
Leave Some Details Vague for Later
When writing my books, I often leave the background and setting details blank or vague. For example, in Gateway to the Past, the Hunter climbs up a palace wall and studies the palace interior from the rooftop.
When writing the rough draft, I simply left this instruction:
“Describe fancy palace, with beautiful Arabian style”
That was it! I didn’t get into detail in the rough draft, but I focused on writing the action, movement, dialogue, inner narrative, and so on. It made the story flow better (though my beta readers may not have loved it), and I came back later during the second draft to flesh out the architectural details—after heavy research on that style, of course.
Sometimes we get bogged down describing the sights, sounds, textures, colors, smells, and other details of our characters’ surroundings. To keep the inspiration flowing, sometimes it’s better to leave some extra details vague and fill them in later, after the story itself is written. You can always come back to flesh things out in the second draft.
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What details do YOU need to know to start writing? Drop a comment below and let us know how you get the ball rolling…
Andy Peloquin is, first and foremost, a storyteller and an artist–words are his palette. Fantasy is his genre of choice, and he loves to explore the darker side of human nature through the filter of fantasy heroes, villains, and everything in between. Andy is also a freelance writer, a book lover, and a guy who just loves to meet new people and spend hours talking about his fascination for the worlds he encounters in the pages of fantasy novels. Check out his fantasy fiction podcast and Learn more about him in his newsletter.