Conservation of detail is the idea that the amount of time spent describing any particular thing is directly proportional to that thing’s importance. This is a staple of good storytelling, and knowing where it applies—and where it doesn’t—will keep your writing tight and compelling.
How it works:
This one is pretty much exactly what it says on the tin. It is in your best interest to flesh out the things that are important to your story, or that show up frequently. If Lucy is our protagonist, readers want to know about her in detail so they know what to imagine when she’s out adventuring. The same goes for places that she’s going to spend a lot of time and items that have a lot of relevance to the plot. Meanwhile, if she rides a bus across town and it is not a magical plot bus, odds are that they don’t have to know about the sticky vinyl seats or what magazine the woman across from her was reading.
Unnecessary details are a bad investment because they slow down the story without actually giving the reader something to latch onto. Conservation of detail is about getting rid of these to speed up the story, while also getting readers to notice meaningful descriptions.
Conservation of detail is also a good way to clue readers in on what is important. If they notice that something is receiving a lot of description, they’ll assume that it matters. Consistently giving too much detail about unimportant things or failing to give detail about important ones makes it difficult to tell what matters and what doesn’t.
How it doesn’t work:
The level of detail should correspond to how unusual something is, as well as how important. No matter how important an item or an action is, it does not need to be described in detail if he reader already knows what it looks like, unless it is significantly different from the norm. The Lost Stapler of Sha’ar might have the power to save the world, but if it looks like a stapler, it’s sufficient to say that it looks like a stapler.
Also, be wary of detailing things that the reader doesn’t know are important. Planting a few quick references to important plot elements early on is great. Heaping description on a seemingly mundane item is a problem for three reasons. First, readers don’t know that there will be a payoff, so to them it just looks like a large block of don’t care. Second, the best case scenario here is that instead of seeming completely off the wall, you just give away your plot twist. Third, if it looks so mundane, that raises the question of why the point of view character finds it so interesting.
Writing like a boss:
There are some times that conservation of detail is not a hard rule. The three most common cases of this are as follows.
Red herrings: A lot of detail tends to tip readers off that an item is important. If your aim is to throw readers off, treat the red herring as you would any other plot relevant item and give it an appropriately detailed description. This makes sense in story because, if it’s a convincing false lead, the point of view character probably considers it worth describing.
Throwaways: In order to flesh out your world it helps to give grounding details. Occasionally tossing out a highly specific description of something that isn’t vital to the
plot—the shade of someone’s lipstick, the scuff-marks on the linoleum floor, the fish-shaped cookie-jar on the counter—makes the story feel more complete. Not every detail must be important. The key to throwaways is how much time you spend on them: unless it’s an ancient relic imbued with untold power (or perhaps the current resting place of the Lost Stapler), no one needs three paragraphs on the fish shaped cookie-jar. A sentence will do.
Fluff: Fluff is the bit of extra that you write because it’s fun. It’s the beach episodes, inside jokes, and lavish descriptions of ballgowns. Fluff doesn’t advance the story, but it isn’t supposed to. And, provided that readers are sufficiently invested in your characters (that is to say, provided that you have earned the fluff), a little bit of this can be immensely enjoyable.
Photos courtesy of morguefile.