Details are a wonderful way of bringing authenticity to a story or novel. In police interrogations, sometimes it’s the details which prove or disprove a person’s involvement in a crime, like what color was the car or the person’s hair?
It’s the same with a novel. If an author doesn’t know the color of her MC’s hair, what faith is the reader going to have with the author to spin a plot without similar holes?
The structure of a house is often used as a metaphor for the structure of a novel. Structure is something that is not seen, and yet it’s irremovable from that which it holds up.
A novel is the same way. Most readers don’t see the structure, don’t see the 2x4s, the nails, the screws, the concrete foundation which all go into building the novel. But those tools are far from invisible in a novel–less invisible than they are in a house. In fact, if you look closely enough, you can begin to pick out the tools used. These are the details introduced in a novel, the tone, the word choice, the personality of the characters, the blank space on the page, etc. All of these details act together to form a novel that is intended to portray a certain message (i.e. theme).
Sometimes if one assumption or one detail is wrong in a story, the entire house crumbles down. The structure can’t hold it up. That’s why it’s so important for us, as authors, to do the research needed to support our novel. It doesn’t have to be historical research, but if you write dystopian or historical fiction, you’d best know the history you’re trying to change. If you’re writing science fiction, you’d best know the science you’re trying to fictionalize. Even fantasy must have an element of believability. Fiction must be more plausible than truth, or else those details are going to intrude more than ever.
So how do these details distract from a reading experience?
1. Too much description.
All too often, when an author has done a great deal of research for a novel or story, it’s obvious–and obvious in a bad way. These are the books where paragraphs of description follow paragraphs of description. Instead of a little sentence here about the setting, you get eight sentences in a row about setting. You get so much description about the hair salon setting or the history of nail polish that you could write your own book. Did you need all that? No.
Rule of thumb: if it doesn’t add to the scene by developing characters, allowing the reader to glimpse just what they need to anchor themselves in the scene, then cut it.
2. Comes off as a defensive soap-box of information.
If you’re writing sci-fi or a book which takes a controversial viewpoint, the book in all its research could come off as defensive. Mountains of description or non-story rabbit trails can meander away from the story you’re telling and instead try to lead the reader to the viewpoint you want them to have (yours of course).
Rule of thumb: cut the rabbit trails. And if it doesn’t show up in the theme of your story, cut it from everywhere in your story. You don’t want your reader to feel hit over the head with the author’s viewpoint (or even a character’s opinion). Make the character’s stance known, forget your stance as an author, and let the theme and events speak for themselves. As above, if it doesn’t advance the plot or develop characters, cut it.
3. Eclipses the story itself.
There are some books that should not be fiction books. They read more like a how-to of building a house rather than a fictional story of a character building a home which is told to amuse readers. If you’re writing to inform, that’s one thing, and while fiction can sometimes inform, the best fiction puts information third (or fourth) behind characters, plot, and theme.
Rule of thumb: if a beta reader tells you that your book is dry and needs more for the characters to do, as well as being heavy on description, maybe you’ve got this issue of research or details bogging your story down. Lighten up on the details and let the characters create action on their own.
Now these are just a few of the ways too much description can affect a reader’s experience with a book.