Hello there readers! Welcome back to Being a Better Writer! I hope you’ve all had a great weekend, got some fun reading done. I certainly did. I made a jaunt to my local library, picked up, and have already read through one of the books I knew I needed to bring up at one of my panels at LTUE. Which is a good segue into some quick news reminders about LTUE. It’s almost upon us, people! In fact, it’s just over a week away! So you’re pretty much at the last chance grab your registration in advance! If you don’t now, you’d best be prepared to pay your way in at the door!
Once you’re there, though, you’ll have a veritable smorgasbord of writing advice and guidance available to you from hundreds of panels, all of which you can see in a grid here (PDF warning; it’ll likely download on a mobile). By the way, some of those panels? I’m on them! So swing by if you’re at LTUE, as they’re some excellent panels on excellent writing topics!
Now, with the LTUE reminder taken care of, let’s get down to business with today’s post. Today I wanted to talk about getting by on as little detail as possible. Or, from my perspective, one of the core components of a short story.
Okay, I realize that might sound a bit strange to some of you. And others might be nodding. Or wondering about other core components of short stories, which there definitely are a few of (for example, a really core one is a story that fits inside a short … which is another topic for another time).
But getting by on as little detail as possible is key for keeping a short story, well, short. See, it’s one thing in a book to have a character come into a setting and take a quick look around it, noting who is present and who’s speaking to who, or perhaps what the setting itself looks like. After all, with a traditional book you’ve got hundreds of pages waiting to be filled, so spending a hundred words establishing a setting for the next few pages? Not such a big deal. In fact, it’s expected.
For a short story, however, where you’re limited in both space and wordcount, taking those hundred words to describe a setting or a scene? Suddenly they’re a much larger blow against the “budget” of space you have to work with. And if you go ahead and write as though you have all the space available to you as one normally would, upon reaching the end you might find that your “short story,” initially directed to be around a few-thousand words, is now nearing novella size.
Obviously, you can’t have everything in a short story. Right there in the descriptor: Short. But that poses a pretty tough question for the writer of short fiction in how they keep said work short. What do you cut and what do you leave? Well, you can cut some dialogue, but usually dialogue is going to be pretty on-point and directly useful to the story. And maybe you can cut some scenes and trim down your plot a bit. But details … well, that’s one area where there’s probably quite a bit to trim.
The real question is which details? And here is where things get tricky.
Obviously, you could just go through and slash indiscriminately. Detail? Over five words long? You’re gone! And yes, that would result in a much shorter story, likely within your limit. You could write in the same manner too. Dialogue, action, detai—Whoa cut that last part—dialogue …
You get the picture, right? Well … here’s the problem with that indiscriminate approach: Now the reader won’t. What you’re seeing in your head, what you want the reader to envision? They likely aren’t. Because all the detail that would guide them in that direction is gone.
Another way to look at this is to envision it like a scene from a movie, save that the “screen” is in the reader’s head and elements only appear as the reader is told about them or able to infer them from the text. Authors put all that detail in to allow a reader to build a scene. So if a reader is told two characters are speaking to one another, walking, then they picture the two characters doing that, but in a featureless void as the reader doesn’t know where they’re talking and walking. They might substitute a random background of their choosing, but the emphasis there is on random: the author has not control, and it may not at all match what’s needed for the scene.
This lack of setting in the reader’s mind can extend further as well. If a character interacts with something that they didn’t expect to be there, for example, only then does the item appear, or “solidify” in the scene, and even then it can be jarring. The aforementioned walking, for example. If it hasn’t been given any setting, the reader might be thinking of a pleasant looking park, but then what if a character suddenly reaches out and lifts a box off of the warehouse shelves.
Sudden jerk out of the story.
Now I realize that’s a somewhat extreme example, as most authors are going to find a way to work in beforehand that this pair of characters is in a warehouse. But that’s because they’ve decided that detail matters, and is key to the story, so they include it, even in an almost innocuous line at the start of the scene.
Of course, they only did so because they realized that that specific detail was key to how their readers would see the scene. This detail was key to the scene coming together in the readers’ head, and so while other detail may have been cut—like perhaps the color of the shirts the characters were wearing, or whether or not they were at work—the writer made sure that the most key bit was left in.
When writing a short story, where you need to get by on as little detail as possible, you’ll have to play this game with every bit of detail possible. Picking it up, examining it, looking at its place in the story, asking how it’ll affect the readers’ view on things and how that view may end up different from your own. Does the reader need to know that the room is painted grey? Or that the rain the character is walking through is a light drizzle?
Now, this is the hardest park, identifying that “knowing” and “needing.” For example, there were a few lines in one of my short stories that an editor wanted to cut for length that noted the difference’s of a character’s home. However, I pointed out to the editor that they needed to be there or the automatic assumption from most readers would be that the house in question was normal and like any other home … which would make the protagonist seem at home and the owner out of place, when the goal was to make it clear quickly that it wasn’t like normal homes, and that the protagonist was out of place, the owner at home.
This was an important detail to the story because the protagonist was spending the rest of it at this location, and needed to feel like the guest, not the resident. Readers needed that mental image of the character being dwarfed by the wide halls and long stairs as they went through the story, rather than the default.
The detail was left in.
This, I realize, may sound like a daunting decision to many new writers, as it requires them to disconnect from what they see as they read their story and look at it through the eyes of their audience. An audience that they may have little to no experience with, and may not be certain of sure of what they expect.
So try it like this. If you’re looking back at your short story trying to decide what detail to cut to get things under quota, or if you’re writing one and want to catch yourself, take a step back and pretend that you’re looking at a scene for the first time. Build only what it gives or infers (and that last one is a little tricky sometimes as we don’t always infer the same things, so be careful) and see what sort of picture you build as you move through the scene. Is something you took for granted missing? Does something appear with no context in a way that’s alarming or jarring? Or is there too much detail? Do you have more given to you (as a reader) than you really need? Can you cut some of it? What changes as a result?
Figure out what can’t be cut, and what you’re better off not cutting. For example, a single line of detail about rain falling in a drizzle beneath a grey sky might seem like something to cut, right up until you note that the setting it makes the reader envision adds a very specific atmosphere that brings the whole scene to life, giving it much more emotion than the scene without the rain and grey.
Difficult? Well of course. This is writing, after all, and we’re talking about what to cut. It’s always going to be difficult. Moreso when we’re analyzing whether detail is vital enough or not to remove.
Which is why I suggest viewing the scene as best as possible through the lens of the reader. Look over a scene and see what’s there that’s vital to the story, that needs to be conveyed … and then what isn’t. Then take what isn’t, cut it, and see what happens.
Basically? The goal is to strip down your short story to be a short story. You trim and cut all the detail that doesn’t have an immediate, absolutely needed purpose for story out. You leave the readers’ imagination to fill in the blanks that are left.
Okay, now before we run off, I imagine some of you are saying “Well, shouldn’t you do that for a normal, full-length story too? After all, pointless details are—” At which point I’ll stop you there and respond that yes, you do want to cut pointless details … but here we may be talking about choosing between two helpful details by deciding which one is more important to keep.
After all, just because a reader’s imagination can fill in some blanks doesn’t mean that it should need to. Or that we can’t make our world more evocative by supplying the detail ourselves. But that’s a luxury for full-length works, not shorts where every word may count.
So you have to pick and choose which details are the most important, while cutting the details that would be fine anywhere else, but may push your short up and over the top. Figuring out which is which is part of mastering the short story,
So there you have it, a guide to getting by on as little detail as possible for short stories. Or rather, a guide to perhaps figuring out which details those little details are. Remember, it’s a process, so don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t make as big an impact as you’d hope the first time around.
But good luck. Now get writing!
Being a Better Writer would not be possible without the support of the following Patreon supporters: Frenetic, Pajo, Anonymous Potato, tiwake, Taylor, Jack of a Few Trades, Alamis, Seirsan, Grand General Luna, Miller, Hoopy McGee, Brown, and Lightwind. Special thanks to them for helping keep Unusual Things ad-free and Being a Better Writer articles coming!