The Devil's in the Details

I studied Economics at A Level and I was lousy at it. I didn't have a strong interest in economics, politics or finance and it seemed irrelevant to my seventeen year old self. The only time I did well on the whole course was when an essay required math and I slavishly worked through the stages on lined paper in an effort to understand what it was I was mean't to be learning. I got an A+ for that essay and a comment - "good workings".

For once the genetically inherited predisposition to be logical and sequential in the processing of information was actually helpful. Showing my workings had worked.

But that was economics, that was math. That was logic where the colour of the sky at twilight or the half seen shape in the corner of the shadowed room had no function. There seemed to be no need for creative imagination in economics, so how the hell does sequential logic fit in with writing? How much of your logical workings should you show when you write?

Generally I think the decision is instinctual based upon the work, the style, the audience and what you want the reading experience to be; for a crime story you don't offer the sequential narrative of a murder laid out on the page in chapter two. You withhold information from the reader until the end, hinting and slipping in clues so the reveal makes sense. You as the great creator know all that happens behind the pages but you don't show your workings, that isn't how these stories work. But then, there are always some exceptions to the rules.

So how do you know how much to show? And how do you kerb the urge to explain every movement of every character? Every expression, gesture, cup of coffee and the regularity of their bowels?

I hope this is still instinct, that you know what needs to be said or shown, know if it's relevant to the story, if the information adds anything to the plot, character or pacing. But there is an OCD part of me which argues that if I don't say or show, how do the readers know how a character sits in a chair or how they get from A to B? If I don't define the details does it make me or the reader uncertain? Does a lack of detail betray two dimensional writing or create a lack of clarity? In those spaces between the information could the reader misunderstand? The desire to control the narrative, to tighten the leash on the writing to ensure my meaning is understood could throttle the words on the page, infest my writing with too much unnecessary detail and make it really fucking dull to read.

And then I remember... I don't need to do all the work. You, dear reader, do a lot of the heavy lifting all on your own.

Your brilliant beautiful imagination will feed upon the details I've already given you and create character nuances more divine and complex than I ever could. You know between the lines how X gets from A to B and exactly how he sits during the journey and which inflight snacks he chooses. All I need to do is get you started and give you the essential details which shape the character and plot. You my darlings will do the rest. I don't need to show my workings because if you need them, you'll work them out for yourself.

It's just a shame that you, the reader, come on board so late in the journey. I could use your insight and imaginations right now when I'm staring at a blank page and wondering if my character has had too much orange juice on the plane and how getting up to pee affects the pacing and the plot.

Ultimately we hope to write what needs to be specifically said and hopefully cut out the urination in editing; unless X peeing is part of the plot, in a plant pot or off a hotel balcony at 3am... otherwise my character's bladders are your responsibilities. Good luck with that dear reader.


  1. A very interesting thought process and it parallels a conversation I had with a colleague earlier this week. We were discussing our favourite authors and Steven King came up. I know Frankie likes him as does my colleague, but I just can't get to grips with him. Too much description, slowing the plot down. I nearly had the same problem with Ivanhoe (two pages to describe a swineherd and a peasant?! Come on!) and Thomas Covenant (by Stephen Donaldson) became a labour of Hercules. I made myself finish the first three but I hated them by the end of it...

    So, you are quite correct, sketch it out, keep the pace and the characters consistent and the reader's own imagination will fill in the blanks - Like Ribes says about the Lord of the Rings films - he prefers the books because the pictures are better.

    And while you consider instinct and logic contrary to artistic nature (it seems) I think they are sections of a loop - fine art almost seems mechanical in its construction - a nod to the influences and a secret handshake with the other believers, very similar to Quantum Physics.

    Milo. xxx


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