Being a Better Writer: Empty Details

Today’s topic is a bit of the inverse of the one I wrote last week. I didn’t intend for this at first—in fact I had no plans for an inverse article when I sat down last Monday; the appearance of this one is entirely coincidence brought about by something I was reading.

But coincidence aside, it’s a worthwhile topic to discuss, because it’s something that can crop up all to easily in fiction … even among experienced authors. For example, while I tend to notice empty details occurring pretty regularly among young writers, I also occasionally find them in finished works as well (one such notice being the result of today’s topic). Given all the time that I’ve spent on this blog discussing the importance of little details and how we can feed things out to our readers, I feel that it’s important, then, to discuss the inverse: empty details.

Empty details are the result of trying to add too much detail to one’s writing. It can stem from a number of sources. Maybe the author in question feels that the isn’t enough going on and tries to liven a scene up by adding more detail. Maybe they’re worried that their dialogue seems sparse (this is one area where this issue seems to crop up most often). Or maybe they’re just trying to reach an arbitrary word count for the day.

It could be any number of reasons. Well, the end result is that they fill their scene with these empty details.

Right, I’ve used that term a couple of times now. What do I mean by it?

Well, if you’re a long-time reader of this blog, you’ll know that I’ve talked before about making sure that everything you stick into your story needs to be important in some way? It has to convey something to the reader, give them something to bite into?

Well, empty details are, in essence, details that are trying to do that and failing. They’re details … but ones that aren’t really relevant to, well, anything. They either inform you of something you already knew, something that isn’t important, or worst of all, inform you of absolutely nothing, being completely devoid of substance.

See why I call them “empty?” They don’t actually do anything for the story but pad it out. Well, that and make it a chore for the reader to slog through.

Right, let’s use an example. As I said, these often pop up in dialogue-heavy sections, so let’s take a look at what that might look like. First, let’s look at a section of dialogue between two characters that doesn’t have any empty details.

“So,” Adrian said, eyeing the soldier sitting across from him. “You saw the air support incoming. Then what?”

“What could we do?” the man replied, shrugging. “We abandoned the square and went running for cover. They had air support, we didn’t. It was stay and die, or move and maybe die.”

“And you didn’t utilize the anti-aircraft equipment your squad was carrying?” Adrian pressed. “Why not?”

“Because Dortega was the one carrying that.”

“I see.” Adrian glanced down at the clipboard sitting in front of him. “And Dortega was—?”

“The one who stepped on the anti-tank landmine, sir,” the soldier replied, a slightly haunted look in his eyes. “The SPEAR launcher, along with the rest of his equipment, was lost.”

Okay, so that’s a scene. A little rough, perhaps, but not bad. We’ve got some clear details, Now let me go through and add some empty details to it.

“So,” Adrian said, eyeing the soldier sitting across from him. “You saw the air support incoming. Then what?” He watched the man, waiting for his response.

“What could we do?” the man replied, shrugging. “We abandoned the square and went running for cover. They had air support, we didn’t. It was stay and die, or move and maybe die.” He looked almost uncaring.

“And you didn’t utilize the anti-aircraft equipment your squad was carrying?” Adrian pressed, leaning forward and fixing his attention on the man. “Why not?”

“Because Dortega was the one carrying that,” the man said.

“I see.” Adrian glanced down at the clipboard sitting in front of him. “And Dortega was—?”

“The one who stepped on the anti-tank landmine, sir,” the soldier replied, a slightly haunted look in his eyes. “The SPEAR launcher, along with the rest of his equipment, was lost.” He looked lost, shadowed by the events he was recounting.

Right, so now, looking at the two and comparing them, what was added to the one with the empty details?

Well, right up front, we have a very empty detail in the first paragraph. In the first line, the text establishes that Adrian is eyeing the soldier sitting across from him. Which makes the final line of the paragraph, the one specifying once again that he’s watching the man, waiting for a response, completely superfluous. We already know he’s eyeing the guy, and can assume easily enough that by posing a question, he’s waiting for a response (which is why “asked without waiting for a response” is a timing indicator that gets used in literature.

See? These are empty details, retreading what the reader already knows. Same with the second paragraph and the soldier’s response. The shrug already implies that he’s resigned or unconcerned. Adding in the last ling “He looked almost uncaring,”  especially when it’s as vague a description as a shrug, just restates what the reader again already knew.

Third paragraph, something similar, though this one could be argued. “Pressed”has been added to with a description of what it entails … but then again, a reader probably already assumed some body language and intent based on “pressed.” If you really wanted, you could cut “pressed” and simply leave the details, but even then, we don’t really need some of them. For example, it’s already pretty clear from earlier paragraphs that Adrian’s attention is on the guy he’s talking to. We don’t need it restated because it hasn’t gone anywhere else.

In the next segment the problem is easy to spot. We don’t need “the man said” as the start of the new paragraph and dialogue tag told us that easily enough. Unless there’s going to be something useful after that dialogue, or we need a codifier making it clear who’s speaking, we don’t need this.

We’ve got the same problem in the final paragraph that we had in the earlier ones. Again we have a second description, one that’s once again describing something the reader already knew. It doesn’t expand on anything we didn’t already get.

Empty details. And as I said at the beginning of this post, these can be surprisingly common.

Now, I’m not saying that extra details in that example would be bad. Not at all. I could go back and cut all the empty stuff and add in stuff to add to the scene. To define the characters more, perhaps, or bring more of a visual to the reader. There was a lot left out of that little blurb.

But the difference there is that those additions would actually be additions. They could be bits that would add to the experience. For example, I could make this—

“And you didn’t utilize the anti-aircraft equipment your squad was carrying?” Adrian pressed. “Why not?”

“Because Dortega was the one carrying that.”

—into this:

“And you didn’t utilize the anti-aircraft equipment your squad was carrying?” Adrian pressed. “Why not?”

The soldier paused, swallowing before meeting Adrian’s eyes and responding. “Because Dortega was the one carrying that.”

See that? That’s a detail that adds something, something that goes along with the “haunted” detail later on. This guy is clearly bothered by recalling all this. Compare that to “the man said.” which was completely empty by comparison.

Now, a note of warning. That addition I just made? That too can be an empty descriptor if you use it too much. Ever read The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan? Well, by book ten (yes, ten), Jordan hit this one on the head. So much so that one of the most popular reviews on Amazon.com contains this wonderful tidbit:

I’ve created my own drinking game based on this called, […]
For anyone who wants to play along the rules are simple:

1.) Is the character you’re looking up totally irrelevent? Take a drink.
2.) Do you have reason to suspect said character will remain totally irrelevent? Take a drink.
3.) Does the character twitch her shawl? Take two drinks.
4.) Is she looking “cross-eyed” at someone? Take a drink.
5.) Do you know the exact design of the embroidery on the fringe of her shawl? Of course you do – take a drink. For your own sanity, consider taking another.

Fair warning, if you play this game, you will likely die of alcohol poisoning by the end of the prologue. On the plus side, however, your body likely won’t require any further embalming.

But, among many other problems (some of which show up in this “game,” such as the irrelevant characters), Jordan grew too used to relying on the same details, to the degree that they would come up multiple times per page. What resulted was something like this:

Character A says something. Character B twitches shawl.

Character B reacts by tugging their braid (another WoT classic). Then Character B says something. Character B twitches their shawl.

Character A tugs their braid. Then twitches their shawl. Then replies. Then twitches their shawl again.

Character C enters the room, takes in Character A twitching their shawl and Character B tugging their braid. Character C smooths their skirts, sits, and … tugs at their braid.

Repeat.

Now, I want to make something clear here: The problem wasn’t that the actions of the characters weren’t important … at least not initially. They were both a way of telling the audience about the character’s moods and a bit of the culture of the world. But where Jordan went wrong is that he relied on them far too much. They were repeated with increasing frequency, to the point that they became a running joke. Not only were they retreading information the reader probably already knew, but they were repetitive as an action as well. It made the characters sound like sprites from old, low-budget games, where they only have one real “emote” action and use it in a variety of situations, even where it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

In other words, in the example I wrote above, mentioning the soldier swallowing is one thing. Mentioning it constantly starts to become repetitive, and therefor useless. Don’t overdo your descriptions of characters doing things. If you clarify that a character is acting angry, you don’t need to reiterate it constantly. Occasionally remind the reader, but otherwise don’t fall into that sort of detail again until things have changed. Moderation!

Moderation also serves us well in another area where empty detail often crops up: Worldbuilding. Now, I know I’ve written a lot about worldbuilding on here before, so I’ve touched on this once or twice before, but all the worldbuilding that you put into your work needs to have a reason to be in the work.

What this reason is can vary. For example, while a spot of detail in a Victorian crime novel about the condition of the workers at the docks may not be important to the overall plot, it can still be an important bit of the “set” to help bring a scene to life. Saying that the docks are staffed mostly by lower-class workers with ragged or dirty clothing, for example, gives a scene more detail than simply informing the reader that the docks are staffed by workers. The latter can vary based on the reader, but the former adds in a bit of flavor.

But you can take this too far as well, filling the story with empty details. Sure, it’s interesting to know that the dock workers are grungy and probably have a hard life. But if you start going into how much they’re paid, that they don’t have lunch-breaks, etc, and none of those details serve a large purpose in the story, well … you’ve got some “empty” details. Technically, they’re not empty, because they are interesting, but they’re empty in the sense that they’re like an empty-calorie item at a meal—they’re not contributing anything other than being there.

So when adding worldbuilding details to your story, make sure you ask what sort of purpose a detail has. Does it bring the scene to life? Does it make more clear a certain segment of the world you’ve built? Does it tie into the plot? Is is something cool that will give the reader a bit of a “hey, that’s neat” moment? Or is it just there because it just is and doesn’t add much at all?

If this sounds tricky, don’t worry, it is. Things that are often said to be done in moderation are usually like that. What you see as interesting may not be to a reader. So there’s some flexibility with this one, unlike some of the earlier cases where it’s pretty obvious that a detail is empty. Some may argue with a worldbuilding detail that it was completely irrelevant, while others may defend it. So with this last one … experience and knowing your audience play a big part.

Going back to the core of things and moving away from worldbuilding however, it’s easy to get caught up in writing a scene and stuff it full of details that, upon a second glance, aren’t that relevant and turn out to be empty. And we don’t want that.

So when you edit your work, when you’re reading it over, pay close attention to your thoughts. Are you skipping over details because you’ve “already read them?” Are there bits and pieces that feel unneeded?

Do away with them. Delete them, reread the scene, and see if it’s better off without that bit. Add back as needed.

Remember, the goal is to build a scene and inform the reader, right? Once you’ve done that, anything that’s a repeat or an extra, too close to the original, is superfluous.

So, check your writing to make sure you’re not leaving in empty details. Are you adding bits to dialogue that just repeat what we already know? Or are you repeating the same kind of description over and over again until it’s no longer worth keeping?

Find your empty details. Give them weight, or cut them out.

Good luck. Now get writing!

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