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Fiction 101: Details Details!

 by DJ Braxton


Somewhere along the lines, writers mistakenly decide that “purple prose” (the phrase used to describe ornate, flowery, or eloquent passages of writing that resemble 19th-century Royal English tea parties) is the way to go, that lots of big words and multiple descriptors in one sentence trumps simple sentences.

Since it’s no longer the 1800s, I highly recommend a more streamlined, contemporary style; in other words, keep your prose spare, lean, and nearly invisible.

Nearly all writers get distracted by details. And details are *good thing*–but good ones. Necessary ones. You don’t want to jip your reader of details, but you don’t want to bog them down (see my blog post “Don’t Start at the Beginning” about mentioning your civil-war-reenactment vacation).

If you’ve ever read something of a purple-prose variety, you may notice yourself stumbling over words, pausing to go back and re-read a sentence, or just plain losing interest, eyes glazing over. Your aim as a writer is for your readers to seamlessly move their eyes over your words and gather meaning without tripping over all your lovely, lengthy, loquacious multi-syllabic words.

Get to the point!

Good writing isn’t necessarily looking up words in the thesaurus to come up with something fancier or spending a paragraph describing in great detail the ham sandwich a character is about to eat for lunch. It is stating things in fresh ways and avoiding clichés, but you can do this simply and with as few details as make sense to get your point across.

Use your details with intention. In other words, choose. Make each word matter and pack a punch. (Less is more!)

Good Use of Detail: The way her white-gray hair sprung like weeds from her head gave the impression that she was in a permanent state of shock, like Albert Einstein or Don King. A dirty pale blue house-dress hung lazily from her shoulder and revealed wrinkled arms and legs. When I walked into the room, the smell of moth balls stung my nostrils.

Poor Use of Detail: The lady had long blonde hair and was tan. She was overweight and five feet seven and wore sunglasses and a purple shirt and jeans. She was taller than me and drove a green Chevy and talked in a raspy voice.

In the first example, the details are related to appearance and use an active voice, action verbs, and more unique, colorful language that appeals to our senses and doesn’t fall flat on the page.

In the second example, the details are less organized, more random, and fairly bland, and don’t pack a punch. Also, they are stacked together in an unnatural way. When we tell stories, we don’t tend to list many details in a row.

Be natural about your descriptions.

Details are used for moods, characters, places, things, scenes. Just remember, the bare bones of your book is telling a story. The details are there to help welcome your reader into the world of your story. They are an invitation. If the party feels like a heavy-duty investment of time (and velour curtains and polyester and people who go on and on) with little payoff, readers will politely decline … or use your book as mulch.

So keep it simple. And take the time to find the right words. Just don’t overuse them.


About the Author

DJ BRAXTON specializes in travel, food and wine, parenting, spirituality, self-help and relationships, wellness, psychology, memoir, and literary fiction. She works closely with authors to develop, liven, and strengthen their manuscripts and marketing material. She provides manuscript critiques that offer extensive feedback on every aspect of a narrative, as well as developmental editing, coaching, and marketing (proposal, query, and synopsis development and agent contact). DJ studied critique methods, literary styles, and fiction writing at Emerson College in Boston, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing.

She’s a former college instructor, tutor, and writing mentor who won several awards for her work in journalism, poetry, and essays. She’s read fiction for Ploughshares, where she was also an editorial assistant, actively participated in local writers’ groups, and published her poetry, fiction, and travel writing in a variety of literary magazines and online.

Darla provides a range of talent:

  • Manuscript critiques and story consults
  • Web content development and feedback
  • Ghostwriting and book proposals
  • Marketing—to clients, agents, and publishers
  • Building Platforms—social media, blogging, newsletters, articles
  • Coaching for writers and writing and editing for coaches
  • Critiques for blogs and motivation for bloggers
  • Developmental editing on a range of topics from self-help to children’s books
  • Expert copy editing and proofreading

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