Posted On September 18, 2015 by Print This Post

Stop…Too Much Detail with Helen Henderson

Helen Henderson joins us today to talk about details. How much is too much or too little? Read on…

By way of introduction of myself to RU, in my various misspent lives I’ve been a historian, a writer, an author, an editor, and a dreamer. Sitting at a stop sign gave muse about too much detail in fiction and on went the editor hat. A problem some authors have is including too much or inappropriate detail. The issue is not restricted to the genres of fantasy or historical fiction which as a rule require more detail to build the required worlds. Any genre, any setting can be susceptible to the tendency to sound as if you, the writer, are explaining to the reader or are telling everything we know.

Three areas where excessive detail can occur are setting, character description, and backstory. Each area is needed to bring a richness to a story, but too much turns the novel into an encyclopedia or removes all the “show.” The amount of detail is not the sole criteria to determining excess, location plays a role also. For example, the first instances of back story may flow easily and orient the reader, but by the final 100 pages or so, readers should be caught up in the current story, not the past.

Almost every editor or reader of a slush pile has the following story or a similar one. The first chapter of a 150K manuscript contained nothing but a description of the world. As did chapters 2, 3, and 4. The editor’s response? Cut the first four chapters, start with the action, and spread out the content of the first few chapters throughout the rest of the book. It was nice to know the science behind the city suspended above the earth, but it was not germane to the storyline. Two or three sentences sufficed where several pages had before.

One way to evaluate whether or not to include a specific detail or group of them is to evaluate it as a scene. Include information Helen Hendersononly if it advances the plot, aids characterization or provides a sense of place and time. It the criteria isn’t met, clip the narrative to the outtakes file. In her 16 Dec 2014 post at RU, Ruth Kaufman summarized the guideline as the following: “You want to include enough setting and detail so readers feel part of the environment, while not overdoing details and making it sound like Ruth the author wants to pour out every fact discovered during meticulous research.”

Another way to determine if the stop sign needs to start flashing comes from author and editor Judy Griffith Gill. If, in rereading a passage for the ninety-ninth time, you find yourself skipping or feeling bored, cut that passage somehow. Compress it into no more than two paragraphs. If the story cannot keep the interest of the author, we can’t expect the readers to slog through it.

As an author our skills improve and change as we learn the craft. One editor suggests besides keeping a list of words they tend to be misspell, that an author keep a list of areas they are prone to have trouble with, such as a data dump.

A hint to recognize a data dump? When one character tells another character a bunch of stuff the second one already knows. Any scene or passage that starts with “As you know” or “As you surely recall” or words to that effect are usually data dumps. A quick search will identify these or whatever transitions you use. Also, if you go five or six paragraphs without any direct reference to a character, either a thought, or an observation, or some dialogue, it’s probably too much.

The amount of detail to include will depend on a number of factors. Ask a few questions. How important is the character to the events of the story taking place in the present? Do readers have to know what he’s done in the past to understand his present or his influence over current story events?

A bit of background detail is expected; too much can read like a lecture. You never want the reader wondering why you’re telling them so much or why you’ve been away from the main story for too long. You don’t want them thinking about the story as a story at all. You want them lost in the fictional events, caught up in the emotions and worries of the characters. Having to stop for a history lesson, even one featuring intriguing characters, can pull readers straight out of the fiction.

Don’t go into detail about characters if they have no significant part to play in the fiction. Although we as the author may have six pages of attributes on a character and no him, or her, intimately, the reader does not need all the details. Readers are curious. They may well want to know about a character’s past, however too much background information makes a story all tell and no show. As an author we bring the reader into the story, into a common visualization. However that does not mean that both sides share identical images. Description is about drawing the reader in and making them live the story with you. Too much detail strips the reader of bringing their own experience to the story.

The sign, Stop… to much detail, is flashing. Now what? Judy Gill suggests “write the dialogue first, then go back to fill in the scenery, the actions, and the mood. Or if you hate to rewrite, capture what the muse tells you, then after each chapter, each day, or at the end, do an evaluation. Decide whether the description needs to be that detailed at that place or would work better elsewhere. Is it a reporting of what has happened before the current time in the story rather than what is happening now and if so, what benefit does it provide.

One final thought. While all the senses contribute to the amount of detail in a work, they don’t all need to be used all the time. A piece of advice given long ago comes to mind. While awaiting the start of a fight heightened senses might bring in the scent of unwashed men surrounding the character, or even pine on the wind. But when the swords and fists swing, the world narrows. Excessive detail can be a result of the placement rather than the amount of words. “Don’t stop and smell the flowers in the middle of battle.”

Sprinkle your details as you would a spice. Not too much, not too little, and blended throughout for a perfect balance.

Where do you find your excessive detail?


Hatchlings CurseHatchlings Curse

The awakening of his dragon soul twin brought Dragshi Lord Branin the freedom of flight and near-eternal life, but not happiness. He means to break the hatchling’s curse and end the childlessness of his kind. A mating flight offers hope. However, when he flies, it is in a competition with his best friend—and not for the woman he wanted. Winning the mating might save his kind, but lose him all that he treasures.

Throwing the competition is not an option.


BIO:   A former feature-story writer and correspondent, Henderson has also written fiction as long as she could remember. Her background in history and managing a museum provides a unique insight into her world building. Her heritage reflects the contrasts of her Gemini sign. She is a descendent of a coal-miner’s daughter and an aviation flight engineer. This dichotomy shows in her writing which crosses genres from historical adventures and westerns to science fiction and fantasy. In the world of romantic fantasy, she is the author of two series: the Dragshi Chronicles and the Windmaster novels.

Find her on online at her author website, at Goodreads or follow her on Twitter at Excerpts of her work, writing tips, and information on new releases can be found at

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8 Responses to “Stop…Too Much Detail with Helen Henderson”

  1. Timely information fo me. Easy to understand and apply.

    Posted by Lynne | September 18, 2015, 2:02 am
  2. This is an excellent article. Helen Henderson clarifies an issue which often bothers me. I detest the glib term “info-dump” and thank you, Ms Henderson, for not using it. “Data dump” is preferable. But why use “dump” at all? It has a strongly derogatory feel to it, and does not respect what an author obviously feels to be necessary.
    I confess to being a bit of a compactor myself but I am learning to spread the information over a greater number of pages. I am in effect, learning to do what Ms Henderson advises in her final paragraph: “Sprinkle your details as you would a spice . . .”

    Posted by Judith Rook | September 18, 2015, 8:44 am
    • Thanks for the point regarding ‘info.’ Before the digital world and all it brought, an editor (and several programmers) hammered into me, there was a different connotation between information and data.

      And for dump? I could blame it on a reference to the method of data entry. Not so long ago, computers were fed punch cards, which were literally dropped by handfulls into the bin for reading.

      But the real reason for the term? My grandmother always sprinkled the spice and dumped the flour when cooking.

      Happy sprinkling.

      Posted by Helen Henderson | September 18, 2015, 4:46 pm
  3. Aaah, the data dump. I’m all too familiar with that. Thanks for a VERY helpful post!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | September 18, 2015, 9:31 pm
  4. Hi, Helen,

    I love your spice analogy. When I write historical romance I do so much research that I have to edit out extraneous info. That’s also why I’m grateful for editors. They kill our darlings when we are unable. The writer knows too much and must be careful not to overwhelm readers in any kind of novel.

    Posted by Jacqueline Seewald | September 19, 2015, 7:11 am


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