Writing fiction: Action versus Detail

This was one of the first things I got advice on when I started writing fiction. Some readers like richly painted environments and detailed descriptions. Others prefer the plot to move forward at a brisk pace and want to see more action. I was still finding my style and I actually hadn’t read that many books before I decided to write one.  I thought I was doing something wrong by not having enough long, detailed descriptions.  Then I read several novels in the genre I was writing and some New York Times bestsellers, and I discovered that writers have different styles.

Some writers don’t spend a lot of time on details, but they are very good about keeping the plot moving and keeping the reader wondering what’s going to happen next. I think I fall into this category. That is, I try to lead the reader in the right direction with brief descriptive details, then let their imagination take over while I get on with what’s actually happening. Some authors spend paragraphs and even pages filling in background story and painting vivid surroundings with their words.  If this is done a certain way, I enjoy it, but I am one of those readers who is tempted to skip paragraphs if descriptions carry on too long. I can imagine what the surroundings look like – I want to know what’s happening.

If the author finds a way to get the reader to care about the main character, then flashbacks and childhood history become more interesting.  Also, if these flashbacks or backstory are done in the form of conversations and details that are actually fascinating or interesting, it holds my interest better. Once again, it helps if things are moving and something is happening.  I am always aware when writing and ask myself the question: “If I were reading this story, would it keep me interested and hold my attention?”

Being a good writer is like being a good conversationalist. You have to filter out those thoughts that nobody cares about. You might think it’s interesting to you personally, but you can’t spout every thought that enters your brain, or people will quickly tire of listening. It has to be something your audience will find intriguing and makes them curious.  Certain books aren’t for me, so I assume that, as a writer, I won’t reach every audience.  But I do know the kind of books that hold my attention, so I try to write in a similar fashion.

Modern media, especially TV shows and movies, are full of big explosions and fight scenes. Many of us have shorter attention spans than our parents or grandparents. It would take an incredible amount of patience for me to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. They were masterpieces of fiction, but I have simply seen too many kung fu and spy action flicks to truly enjoy them. Sad, in a way.

On the other hand, I noticed that when I started reading more, I was able to enjoy more styles of writing – not only books for action junkies. Reading is like listening. It’s a skill built with practice and it does get better the more you use it. I noticed my ability to conjure up the world of the story got better and I moved more easily through the pages.

But back to my original point, I think modern readers in general want to see more action and get bored with long, descriptive passages because of the influence of movies and other modern media.  So I write with this theory in mind, along with the idea that if I like it, someone else out there probably will too. There are many balances to find in writing, and description versus action is just one of them.  You need the right mix of both.


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