How to Identify and Remove Trivial Detail From Your Stories

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Today’s guest post is excerpted from Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life by Roz Morris (@NailYourNovel).

Writers are often advised to fill their scenes with rich detail—to show, not tell. However, if taken too far, you can clutter or bloat your story with too much irrelevant description. If you provide scene upon scene of character downtime, each conversation word for word, and every beat of inconsequential action, this can be exhausting or boring for the reader.

One of my clients wrote a long scene about her protagonist spending a quiet evening at home, which amounted to several pages of inconsequential phone calls. Brenda called and the protagonist talked to her. Then her stepfather, then a colleague, then the residents’ association. What did they say? Nothing much. It was just humans catching up.

It was certainly realistic, but the reader would be overwhelmed or wondering what importance these calls have to the story. They would be trying to keep track of everyone—she has an Auntie, Mum, Bizzy the cat­sitter, Pete the friend, Steve the other friend. He said this, she said that. They talked about someone called Paul, or was it Pauline? And who exactly is Brenda?

This is fine if it’s important to make the reader ask those questions. They might advance the plot or echo the theme. But if they are only there for atmosphere, we need to treat the material differently.

The client and I reframed the scene, considering what the reader had to take away. There was nothing to learn from the dialogue, and it didn’t matter who called. But we wanted to create the impression that the character was busy and had friends. If this scene was a photographic composition, these callers might be shown in the background, maybe out of focus. They would add depth but wouldn’t distract from the important subject. So, instead of showing the conversations in real time, we shrank them to a summary. In the end, it worked best to turn them into messages, with the protagonist’s reactions:

Brenda called. She’ll want to talk about Fred but I’m too tired for that right now. Stepfather—darn, I was going to give him the number of that insurance company. Steve from the Swindon office—can’t it wait until after the weekend? The residents’ association—yes, I’d said I’d help with the posters for the garage sale. Can I get away with not calling back until tomorrow?

That thicket of trivial talk shrank to one paragraph. We now had a character with an authentic life. It indicates some of her routines and obligations and the people she might talk about, but it wasn’t given undue prominence. Indeed, it would be better included as texture in a scene where something more significant was happening. (Scenes should have more than one function to keep a story moving, plus they are more satisfying than scenes that merely sketch background.)

The same principle applies to characters with interesting pasts. You don’t have to tell us every detail. Indeed, if you pay out background in glimpses, you can create more depth because you let the reader use intuition.

In Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel makes veiled references to Thomas Cromwell’s roguish past before he comes to King Henry’s court. She hints that he might have killed a man. Other characters occasionally refer to it as a rumor. Cromwell himself dwells on an unclear memory fragment. Later in the book, he teaches his sons that a blow that can kill, and we wonder where that knowledge came from. But we never get a “reveal” scene to explain. It remains shady, to build Cromwell’s reputation, ruthlessness, and physical presence—for the other characters and also for the reader. Cromwell also suspects he may have fathered children in those lost years. This starts to trouble him as his own children mature, and his older self feels he would like to know these unknown others. Mantel might have brought this background forwards, but she keeps it as glimpses. This creates a curious and appealing vulnerability, making Cromwell a man with a human center. Glimpsed details make a character more real and true.

Of course, you may add detail for deliberate effect. Stieg Larsson begins The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with a character who receives mysterious pictures of flowers every year. Everything stops for a leisurely discourse on the kinds of blooms and where they grow, as though we were touring the book’s world with a magnifying glass. This eases us into the mindset of a detective, who can’t allow any observation to pass without evaluating and classifying it.

Background detail—and indeed back story—should be used with care. Too little and the characters act in a peculiar void. Too much, and the story is suffocated. But you can create inventive effects according to the way you defocus, hint, expand, and condense.

Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to LifeIf you enjoyed this post, I highly recommend you take a closer look at Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life by Roz Morris. Click here to download a sample to your Kindle.

Posted in Writing Advice and tagged , , , , .

Roz Morris lives in London. You’ll have seen her books on the bestseller lists but not under her name because she ghostwrote them for other people. She is now coming into the daylight with novels of her own. Her first is My Memories of a Future Life and her second is Lifeform Three. She is also the author of the Nail Your Novel book series. Find out more at her Amazon author page, her blog, and on Twitter at @Roz_Morris.

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Shirley Showalter

You nailed another one, Roz. Excellent advice often learned the hard way. I’m sure your clients appreciate this kind of incisive direction in revision. And now all of us can benefit. Thanks.

Dina Santorelli
Dina Santorelli

Great post, Roz! When I think of “show, don’t tell,” I think about the important stuff that I’m telling the reader in my novels and wonder if that information would be more effectively gleaned from an action, rather than from an internal dialogue. And more often than not, the answer is yes.

Darrelyn Saloom

Always great to see you, Roz. Your post reminds me of a manuscript I edited with pages and pages of back story dialogue dumping. Didn’t think I’d survive that one. It was boring to read those pages of dialogue as I journeyed miles from the real story. Once a reader gets bored and lost, s/he moves on to another book.

Sherrey Meyer

Excellent post. A detail of writing we all needed to be reminded of from time to time.


[…] Author Roz Morris details “how to identify and remove trivial detail from your stories”. […]

Judy Lee Dunn

I can so relate to this.This is my big momentum breaker! (Think description like in Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward Angel.”) I am aware I have this problem and that is the first step to fixing it. Lots of details get dumped in my second and third drafts. The trick is keeping the ones that move the story forward. : ) Thanks, Roz. This was very helpful.

Ann Stanley
Ann Stanley

Great post. This really seems like heart of the craft of good writing: culling the boring stuff, understanding why we included it, replacing or synthesizing, and expanding sections that would advance the story if they were shown and not told. I’m glad to learn that not everything needs to be shown.


[…] Jane Friedman has showcased an excerpt from the characters book on her blog, and she chose the tutorial where I […]


Great tips Roz! Some of my stories are suffering from suffocating background info and trivial matters but this article has helped me re-think and critically think about some of the editorial decisions I’m making. Thanks!


[…] new instructional book, Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life. Friedman presented an excerpt, How to Identify and Remove Trivial Detail From Your Stories. Not that Ether readers would ever have a trivial detail in a […]

E.L. Farris
E.L. Farris

Actually, and with all due respect, if I were a reader and I came across the rewritten paragraph, I would groan. It’s boring and not well-crafted. If a scene is boring, and I have no doubt the several pages you cut was boring, just cut it. A novel need not proceed in a purely sequential manner. It can skip entire days, months, years. And while I agree thoroughly with the show don’t tell directives, it isn’t excessive telling to simply write, “The next morning . . .” or “When Character awoke . . .” or a million other phrases that… Read more »

Daniel Marvello
Daniel Marvello

Thanks for the tips, Roz. The subject of how much description to use has come up a lot lately in the circles I visit. Your revised paragraph also reminds me of the “deep POV” material I’m currently reading. You get a feel for the moment (or a condensed period of time in this case) largely through the character’s reactions and internal dialog. It’s almost description by implication, and it’s a good example of what I like to call “just in time” description. I hope NYN:BCtL is doing well for you.


[…] Roz Morris guest blogs on publishing expert Jane Friedman’s website that not all detail is good detail. […]


[…] from Roz Morris’ (@NailYourNovel) Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life which addresses when show is too much. It didn’t include as many details as I’d've liked—hmmmm, an example, […]


[…] The following is an excerpt from Nail Your Novel by Roz Morris (which I’m reading now and LOVE) – from Jane Friedman’s blog : […]


[…] Writers are often advised to fill their scenes with rich detail—to show, not tell. However, if taken too far, you can clutter or bloat your story.  […]


[…]  — Roz Morris, quote from How to Identify and Remove Trivial Detail From Your Stories […]