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Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Detail Dilemma

One of the common problems for authors well schooled in "Show, Don't Tell" is deciding how much to show: Which details matter and which are overload? I'm having that problem right now with a current WIP.

A couple of weeks ago, I blogged about my visit to Butte County Jail. Main character Maggie is falsely accused of a crime and hauled off to jail awaiting formal charges and such. To get the details right, I arranged a tour with the jail director, Andy Duch.

Andy couldn't have been kinder, and Janice Young, the deputy who walked me through booking procedures for a female prisoner, was equally helpful. I walked away with five pages of single-spaced notes.

Now I'm writing the booking scene and I'm overwhelmed with details. Yes, it's important to show rather than merely telling. It's important to walk readers through the actual procedure so they can project themselves into Maggie's situation and empathize with what she's experiencing. But if I give them everything I have, they're going to be so bogged down in details, they'll lose the story line--or worse yet, give up reading.

So the trick is deciding how much is enough. Some details from the strip search are important, just so readers know how demeaning the whole process is, but there are other parts I didn't particularly want to know and would prefer not to repeat. Decision made. How about the rest?

Is it important to know that the bag of toiletries is called a "fish kit," that the roll calls only use last names, that the bedroll includes three sheets? I'm still deciding how much detail is enough and how much is too much.

I have already written the scene where Maggie's living nightmare begins. That part seems to have gone fairly well:

             “You have the right to remain silent,” Sergeant Russell was saying. We’d already gotten through the first part of the script, the part about how I was under arrest for murder. Now he was pulling out the handcuffs. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law.”

“I didn’t . . . I didn’t kill anybody,” I said, but no one was listening to me anymore. I staggered through the procedure as my hands were fastened behind my back while the rest of my Miranda rights were read. My ears were buzzing and I thought there was a good chance I’d faint. The first time the lieutenant pulled me to my feet, my knees wouldn’t hold me and I dropped back into the chair. He gave me almost twenty seconds before pulling me to my feet again. He wasn’t rough, exactly—just insistent, and I knew I wasn’t going anywhere except where he said. 

             Maybe it was a weird reaction, but all I wanted was sleep. That’s the place for a nightmare, right? When you’re sleeping? 

Soon Maggie will tell me how much more to include. I'm counting on her. 

Susan Aylworth's first eight books are now available as digital downloads for Kindle, Nook, Smashwords and at other web sites.


  1. I like the way you're presenting this. Nicely done.
    In answer to your question, no, right now i don't think you need to show it all, it could be included in a scene while she's sitting in her cell and wondering how the heck she got there, or something.

  2. If details are too thick I skim over them. It's hard to get the exact balance, isn't it?

  3. I agree with Elaine. Too many details and I overlook them. Sprinkle them in throughout the scene like Sherry suggested maybe. Enjoyed the passage you shared.

  4. I have struggled with these issues, too. I think I'm slowly finding my way. Thanks for sharing; I enjoyed visualizing this scene...and here's MY SWEET SATURDAY SAMPLE

  5. Yes, balance is important. Let the reader see only what is important to the scene and no more

  6. I'm going with the consensus above. Less is more. Maggie seems to be your good ally.

    One more thing: I hate word verification. I hope this goes through, because I only try once.


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