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... and her cousin's cat's middle name was 'Bob'

This is my cat. He doesn't actually have a middle name.
I’ve always been kind of obsessed with random details. And by ‘kind of’, I mean deeply, ridiculously obsessed. When I was a kid I used to play make believe with another girl who was as detail obsessed as me, if not more. We’d start by deciding what our characters’ first names were. And their surnames. And their middle names. Then we’d move onto their siblings. And their parents. And their pets. We’d decide whether their hair was dark brown or medium brown, whether it was long enough to sit on or shoulder length, and whether their eyes were green or blue or hazel or brown. And whether they were tall or short or medium, and whether they were tall-medium or short-medium or medium-medium. We'd discuss which adjectives described them: were they kind? Imaginative? Adventurous? What did they wear? And then, after maybe a month of details, we’d actually start playing. But there was something important, something powerful, about knowing all the details. 

We were both in love with the Baby-Sitters’ Club series as well, because man, Ann M. Martin knew about details. She always devoted a whole chapter to them: first names and last names and siblings and pets and outfits. And after a few BSC books I had most of that stuff memorized, so usually I skipped that chapter (except the outfits, because as anyone who’s read BSC knows, the outfits were incredible). But I figured the details were crucial. That the story would break if you didn’t know them. So when I wrote my own stories, as an eager nine year old, I would devote pages and pages and pages to the details. I would pour them all out, all at once. I would make sure everything was pinned down perfectly, that there was no doubting the middle names and hair lengths and siblings of every single character who was even remotely likely to feature in the story. 

I don’t think anyone could get through those pages without dying of boredom*. Even me. So at some point, I started skipping those bits when I was writing as well. Stories didn’t break if you didn’t know for sure that the main character’s best friend was definitely medium tall with green eyes and dark blond shoulder length hair. However, they did break if people stopped reading.

Jump to a few years later, when I was at high school and in love with writing fantasy. I realised early on that even if I didn’t go in for the Tolkien style world building with languages and maps and appendices, the details were endless. How the magic worked, how people and places fitted together, what the climate was like. One day, when I was feeling particularly overwhelmed, I told myself, right. I’ll just tell the story. I’ll go back and add details later if I need to. I figured that would be a long, annoying task, with thousands of details everywhere to explain, but it was better than being permanently paralyzed by all the random information swimming around in my head. But funnily enough, I didn’t find myself needing to add many details later on at all. As I told the story, some details unfolded with the narrative, as they needed to. Others stayed hidden behind the words, waiting patiently, just in case. It was unbelievably liberating.

I’m still obsessed with random details. But these days, I find myself being more and more careful with them.

How do you decide what to include in your writing?

*I’m pretty sure even my mother skipped those bits, and she has put up with a lot from me over the years. So yeah.
Leila Austin

Leila lives in Middle Earth, also known as New Zealand, and writes YA fantasy.

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  1. I never make lists of my character's vital stats, because then i feel i have to include it in my book. I think it's better if the things that make them, them are intreduced bit by bit.

    I don't like it when someone writes a British LI and proceeds to steer the conversation in awkward directions just so the boy can say something quaintly British - I posted about it at

  2. When I was a kid me and my sister planned to write this epic series of books set in a high school where each book was about a new year group. Not only did we write down the full name of every child in the school (!) we made pictures of them. In Paint.

    These days, when I write, I don't include that much detail. I probably don't include enough, actually. I never say what my characters look like because I write in first person and no one ever thinks "ah, my black hair and brown eyes" so it never seems to come in naturally. I try to work details in if there's a situation that calls for it. Or, if that doesn't happen organically, I try to create a situation that allows me to slip the details in.

  3. I tend to have too few details, especially in early drafts. I try to include any details that are needed to have the story or action make sense, or to show character clearly. But I always end up adding more detail after I get feedback from people, who point out where they can't picture something or don't understand something.

    Thank goodness for crit partners and beta readers!

  4. When I was young, I loved BSC! And I think those description chapters definitely influenced my writing early on (and yes, I ended up skipping them in later books as well because I pretty much had them memorized). As I got more experience writing, I realized I can slip those details in throughout the book.

    And as CB said too, it can be a little difficult to do that in first person. I do try to fit those details in though, because as a reader, I still like to have some guidance on picturing a character. And I try to write the descriptions as such, as guidance and not a fully detailed portrait.

  5. I love details, I have pages and pages of details stored on my computer, but about half of them never make it into my stories. I had a science teacher in middle school who's way of telling us how long our reports had to be sums up my views on details in a story. He used to say they needed to be, "Long enough to cover the subject, but short enough to keep it interesting." (Yes, that analogy was based off of how young girls wore skirts. He was an interesting teacher.) For details that basically means there should be enough details to tell the reader what they need to know, or to make the story a little more interesting, but not so many you have the reader begging for some action by the end of your description.


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Item Reviewed: ... and her cousin's cat's middle name was 'Bob' Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Leila Austin