Being a Better Writer: Detail Versus Audience

Welcome back readers! It’s Monday again, and you know what that means! And if you didn’t, well … Check that title above!

That’s right, it’s time for another installment of Being a Better Writer! Now that the Jungle launch is past us—an event I’m sure some of you are tired of hearing about, but only because you haven’t read it yet—life can settle back down to normal. Until the next launch at least.

But seriously, guys, Jungle is out. There’s no good reason not to have picked up a copy yet! Unless you haven’t read Colony, in which case you’re really behind and what are you waiting for?

Also, don’t forget that the call is open currently for additional Being a Better Writer topics! If there’s something you’ve wanted to hear about that BaBW hasn’t covered, go leave a comment and you might see it covered in the future!

Okay, that’s the news out of the way. Let’s talk writing.

Today’s topic comes from a forum post I saw online. Specifically, from a forum dedicated to talking about Sci-Fi books. A new, would be writer hopped into the forum and asked what seemed like a pretty simple question, which I’ll paraphrase here:

When writing about technology in my Sci-Fi novel, like spaceships, is it important that readers get all the details of how it works and why? Or should I just offer a little bit of info, or almost none, and move on?

You readers want to take a stab at what answers this poor individual got? I’d almost bet that answers here would, statistically, line up with with those given on the forum.

See, this forum was Reddit. So anyone could either upvote or downvote answers that they felt were right or wrong (I mean, in theory it’s “upvote posts that contribute, and downvote ones that don’t” but everyone turns it into a vote anyway). Would you like to guess what the top two answers were?

They were “Yes, give us the details about the ship and tech so we know about it” and “No, we don’t need that detail! Just tell us there’s a ship and move on, we don’t need anything else.”

Uh-oh.

Yeah … I really hope this newbie writer wasn’t too distraught by the answers that they were given. Because when I stumbled across the thread, most of what had been said fell into one of those two camps: give the detail, or keep it.

So who’s right in that scenario? Which answer should they follow? Well, unfortunately for the one who’d asked that question, and for all of us … that answer is a bit more complicated than simply picking one or the other. This is one of those instances in writing where both are right … and both are wrong. And what really makes the answer one or the other is who’s reading the book.

No, really. In fact, I can show it with reviews of my own work. As most of my readers know, I tend to fall more on the detail side of things: If I present something new, like a gadget or a ship, the reader is going to get a description of it in some way, as well as a bit on how it functions. I want the readers to know what to visualize and let them build expectations of how said device or thing or whatever may be used in the story.

And my fans? They love this. Readers that do not look for books with this expectation, however, hate my work. Look no further than the reasons given for reviews praising my work compared to reviews that despise it. Reviews that enjoy my work often note and praise things like “…crafted with immense attention to detail and imagination …” while reviews that can’t stand my work single out the same element as being awful and completely hated. One review that left a single star went as far as to decry specific elements of character establishment, saying that they didn’t care and would rather just see stuff happen already.

Who’s wrong? Who’s right? Well … both are right, and both are wrong … depending on their interests.

In other words, it comes down to the audience.

See, some readers don’t want to read books with a lot of detail to them. Or even an average amount of detail. They just want to see a spectacle. Well, read a spectacle. Who cares that the protagonist is on a spaceship? If the spaceship isn’t shooting something right now, this book sucks.

But then there’s the opposite end of the spectrum, the reader that goes “Oh hey, they’re on a spaceship. Well, what kind of spaceship? What’s it like? What does it look like inside? Is it armed?”

And again, neither approach here is necessarily wrong. It’s just a result of people looking for different things out of their fiction.

See, the first type of reader, the one that doesn’t want detail? To put it bluntly, and I realize this sounds harsh, but it’s true … They don’t want to think about the book. They’re there to be entertained by things happening in front of them. And if things aren’t happening in front of them, they’re bored.

“Character’s in a spaceship? Well, what’s it doing? No, I don’t care what it looks like. Is it doing anything? Taking off? Okay cool. I’m going to sit back and read, and it’d better explode or something.”

Okay, again that might seem a little harsh, but boiled down, that’s basically the mindset of the “I don’t want details” reader. The reasons behind it can vary, but the end result is “detail=1-star for this book.”

Why? As I said, reasons vary. Some readers see detail as “slowing” the book they need to finish as fast as possible. The kind of reader that tells you Tuesday that they’ve already finished three books that week, and how far are you along? Or maybe they’re the kind of reader that barely has any time to read anymore, so any “delay” in them getting to the end of the book is like a spear through their brain. Either way, these readers just want to get through the book as swiftly as possible. Detail, therefore, is just something that’s in the way. They don’t care about the why and how of a murder mystery. All they care is that there is one, someone died, and that someone is solving it by the end … even if the details of how the case is solved never come up. Doesn’t matter, because they mystery was solved. Details just get in the way of getting to that point.

Others don’t like details for similar reasons, feeling that they don’t matter. “What does it matter if the protagonist is carrying a gun that holds fifteen bullets versus sixteen?” they’d ask. “They’ll always shoot the number they need even if that’s more than the number given, so it’s a pointless detail that’s just in my way.” In other words, they have the mindset that the details don’t matter to the story because the protagonists will just do whatever they want to anyway.

In their defense, there are a lot of stories out there where this is true. One that routinely comes to mind when I think of things like “detail doesn’t matter” was an abysmal (by my opinion) action move I watched with my dad once where in the end, the protagonist chases down a 747 that is taking off on a scissor lift so that he can attach the bomb the antagonists tried to kill him with to the landing gear.

Yes, this is a thing that happens in the story. Chasing down a 747 with a scissor lift. I did not enjoy the movie. My dad did.

But you see the comparison there? It’s a story where the details of what the protagonist uses to catch the plane don’t really matter, because no matter what, it’s going to do it. It’s just a tool for the action and story events to move forward. Who cares if it’s a scissor-lift or a truck or an ambulance? What it is doesn’t matter nearly as much as what happens.

Which kind of sums up  lot of the reviews out there for books of all types that give it a low score and shout for less detail. To those readers, the detail doesn’t matter because it just gets in the way, either of the reader getting to the end, or the story of getting to the meaty, action-filled bits.

So what about the other kind of reader? The one that does want that detail? Why? What makes that detail more important than just getting to the end of the story as quickly as possible?

Well, first let me point out that detail for the sake of detail doesn’t win with this crowd. If the story is full of extraneous detail that can’t actually serve a purpose, even an audience that loves detail will be irate with the story. The detail has to do something.

But what that detail does for those that love it is build the world so that they can think about it. The protagonist gets on a spaceship? “What is it like? What should I be picturing?”

But it goes even further than that. Where the less detail-oriented reader doesn’t want to know how many bullets the protagonist carries because that “gets in the way” of the character doing things, the detail-oriented reader wants to know because they’re going to think about and count those bullets. The result?

Where a non-detail reader will have a scene where the protag, say, enters a room with three antagonists and thinks “Okay, protag will now take them down somehow” the detail reader will be thinking “Oh no, does the protag know they’ve only got two shots left? How will they take down the third guy? What if they miss? Wait, they just noticed that lamp! Maybe …”

See, the reader that enjoys the details enjoys them because they’re thinking on them as the story moves forward and know that they’ll matter in the future if the author delivers as promised (the promise unspoken, but that the details are brought up because they’re important). So, they’ll think about them. Ponder on them. They want to know what the spaceship is like, or the motorbike the character is using. Is it special in some way? Is it unique? Then later, when the character does something, they can make predictions about how it may be used, or be surprised by the character using it in some way they hadn’t thought of. They want to be there in the adventure, not just see it.

“Thought” is kind of the key thing here. Those who are averse to works that involve detail don’t want to think on it until all is said and done. “Stop wasting my time and finish, and then if I want to think about it I will.” While the other side of the coin is “give me detail to think about, because I want to think while I’m reading.”

As you might guess, both sides are often at odds with one another. Often … but not always. Some readers can “flip” their mind between the two mindsets, identifying early a story that’s just meant to be read to the end as quickly as possible or digested and adjusting their expectations accordingly. Other readers, however, can’t, resulting in books that see extreme divergence in reactions to the books they read.

So … which one is wrong, and which one is right? Well … neither is, really. That’s where things get tricky. There are whole swaths of readers out there that prefer a book with as little detail as possible, just jolt that story from point A to point B like it’s on a roller coaster and don’t ever think of slowing down with something like an exploration of how or why any of this worked. That’s not important.

While that may sound grating to the extreme for some of you, there are others out there nodding and thinking “Yes, that’s what a story should be!” Likewise, the inverse, a story that builds its world and is written with the intent of the audience soaking up that information and applying it to the story as they move forward, sounds terrible to readers who just want to see the end arrive.

To put it another way, one half of the reading audience just wants to know that character Z opened the door. They don’t care about how, or why, or where the ability to open it came from. The door needed to open, it’s open now. And the other half doesn’t want to see that happen without knowing that beforehand, character Z’s skill with lockpicks was established.

Unfortunately for us authors, neither approach  is right or wrong save only by virtue of what our audience wants. And you cannot please both. That’s why there are books like Dune with one-star reviews ripping on it for presenting ‘useless information no one would ever care about.’ These two approaches to reading are just on opposite spectrums, and unless you the reader makes a bridge themselves, they’re going to want what they want.

So … which one should you write, then? With detail, or without?

Well, that depends on who you want to sell to, and what you enjoy writing. For example, it’s no secret to my readers that my books fall on the detail end of things. The worlds I build have depth, and readers are expected to think ahead and put the pieces together from the details given. And while that endears my work to a lot of people, there are also prospective readers who are not a fan of that approach, and either pass my books up or, worse, try to read them anyway because they like the premise only to hate that the detail is there and walk away with a sour taste in their mouth.

And that’s … well, not something I can really have control over. If I wrote a book that those readers would enjoy, the audience I already have would be let down and have just as sour a taste in their mouth because they’re reading my works for those same elements.

In other words, you need to choose when you’re writing a book which approach you will take and why. Again, detail does matter. When you deliver a reader a bit of detail about something, the detail-oriented reader sees it as a promise that the information is relevant in some way. It’s building up the scene, allowing the reader to picture it properly, giving them the tools to understand a character more or make a prediction for later … something.

So don’t just drop in detail because you can. It does need a reason to be there. At the same time, however, don’t expect a book written with detail the detail-oriented reader will grasp to appeal to someone who just wants to get to the end as quickly as possible and not worry about that kind of stuff.

In the end, then, this is another question a lot of young writers have that boils down to “know your audience.” Yes, you want to know how to use detail and use it well (take a look at some of the posts here if you’re having trouble with that) but if you’ve ever had a question like the one that prompted this post, know that both answers are doable. You just need to decide which one you want to do, and whether or not you can find an audience for it.

No matter what though, there will likely be people who tell you something like “I like the idea behind your work, but reading it is just bleh because …” and then tell you that there’s either too much detail or not enough.

This doesn’t mean that your work isn’t perfect. It just means that that reader isn’t the audience for your work.

Now, if you can’t find any audience at all, well … that’s a different matter, and at that point you should be looking to identify the cause. And we should always be looking to improve our writing, so don’t get me wrong there either. But audience is one of those tricky areas where a lot of it is based on their personal opinion, and we need to remember that along with the concept that not any one work will appeal to anyone.

So, when it comes to having details versus just getting that story along its way as quickly as possible, which is right or wrong?

Neither. They’re both right, and both wrong, depending on the reader. It’s your job, as a creator and a writer, to know which audience you’re appealing to, write the book that will satisfy them. and make sure that the right people find it (assuming you want people to find it).

Don’t know which one you write yet? Well, the cure to that is to start writing. Get that story out, and see what you’ve made, and where you need to improve. Because ultimately, until you’ve got it written … Neither audience can tell you anything.

So, good luck. Now get writing.

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5 thoughts on “Being a Better Writer: Detail Versus Audience

  1. What about readers who are simply interested in *different* details than the author is interested in? It takes a Heinlein to get me to care about spaceship design, but spacesuit design would more easily intrigue me. And look at the tremendous volume of fanfiction that exists to discuss details that the original creators didn’t provide.

    When I think of masterful use of detail I think about Lois McMaster Bujold, whose books contain such a wide variety of details that they have something for everyone from military SF fans to Jane Austen fans.

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    • I’d suggest that’s a case of subject matter rather than levels of detail. As mentioned in the post, the details need to be relevant to the story in some manner. So if you want a cool bit on how the spacesuits work, you’ll want a book that’s going to have spacesuits feature in some way so that there’s a reason to detail them.

      There are definitely plenty of calls for extra worldbuilding details (and fanfiction does like fleshing them out) but often those are extras because they wouldn’t fit properly into a narrative without derailing it. But people still get curious, so after the fact it can be fun to give that information out in a setting or place that works for it (like an appendix).

      If you like cool suits, I hope you’ve at least glanced at Colony and Jungle. Neural Skinsuit armor is the best!

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  2. As a reader, I have found `suspending my disbelief` prior to reading a novel helps me considerably in enjoying whatever I am reading. That allows me to not be disappointed when I do not get the supporting details I would like, and still enjoy works that are long on bang and short on thought.
    And when I do come across works that do have a trove of details that relate to the story, and I can speculate and think ahead about what is coming and what is happening, that’s a welcome bonus. It’s like the frosting on a cupcake. No frosting, enjoy your muffin. Frosting, enjoy your cupcake. All good, even if I think one is better. 🙂
    That said – thank you Max for putting plenty of details into your stories to give me more to think about. For me at least it really makes the read a much greater pleasure. 🙂

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  3. This is a very interesting topic but it is strange I am currently struggling with the opposite. Wether to convey or not convey an absence of something. For example I am writing a colonial era fantasy world where the guns use magic because gunpowder does not exist. How do you convey the fact that something does not exist without an all present narrator. You don’t tend to say stuff like “I am so glad this thing does not exist in this world” in talking or thoughts. Also is it needed to convey that fact that something does not exist. The audience can infer that they are not using gunpowder but is it needed to explain the why.

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    • It sounds like you might need a Watson. Check out “Worldbuilding – Part 2” here on the site for a more in-depth look, but a Watson is a character that needs to have something explained to them, so that the audience can also have it explained.

      There are other ways to present information like that, but the Watson is a classic.

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