The Dangers of Detail Derailment

by James Scott Bell

Okay, kids, we have a first page to discuss. Let’s read it and chat on the other side.

Shadow of Xiom-Thogg

Barbarians clashed on the road to Heliopolis. Three were stout, blue-bearded Sherdens, one of the tribes of sea-folk that sailed forth to harry faltering Egypt. They wielded long, leaf-bladed swords and were protected by horned helmets and bronze-banded corselets, augmented by round shields emblazoned with bulls heads.  One of their number already lay dying, a spear tangled in his guts. She who cast that spear was as alien to the land of the Pharaohs as the Sherden, though she came by a longer and more circuitous route. A green-eyed giantess, pale of flesh and tawny-haired, standing a good head taller than her sea-faring opponents. She was incongruously clad in the manner of a Persian soldier, with a bronze-scaled cuirass over a linen tunic and trousers thrust into soft leather boots. Like a lioness cornered by jackals she battled her tormentors, lashing out from behind a tall wicker shield with a sagaris, the deadly battle-axe of the Persians.

A Sherden made a bold thrust, seeking her vitals, but his blade transfixed the wicker shield instead, narrowly missing the woman’s sinewy forearm. She twisted to one side, tangling the sword in the wreckage of the shield. Unwilling to release his weapon, he was upended and tumbled to the ground. She let the ruined shield fall with the hapless swordsman, and his comrade, seeing an opening, lunged recklessly in an attempt to decapitate the tawny-haired she-devil. Moving with preternatural speed she sidestepped his powerful blow. As the momentum from the spent attack sent him stumbling past her, she brought down the axe, shearing through his horned helmet and splitting his skull in a welter of blood and brains. He fell, sprawling in the dust that thirstily sucked up his flowing blood.  


JSB: Ah, nothing like blood and brains to get us going this fine Sunday. Let me say some good things up front. I like this writer’s imagination. There is a vivid “other world” here, and the potential is bubbling in the pot.

In some ways it reminds of the great Robert E. Howard, and the many stories he did for Weird Tales back in the 30s. He could build a world and clash the swords unlike anyone before or since. This author has similar raw material; we just have to chisel it so it makes for gripping fiction.

First off, a tip about readability these days. No one likes big, blocky text. This entry is made up of two Brobdingnagian paragraphs. A browser opening up this book might take a look at the page and think, “Why bother?”

True, readers of epic fantasy are perhaps more tolerant of blocky graphs. But not all, so why turn off a significant percentage of readers when it’s so unnecessary? No one is going to complain that your first page isn’t hard enough to read. So break up the blocks! This page could easily be four to eight paragraphs. (Which reminds me of when Yogi Berra was asked if he’d like his pizza cut into four or eight slices: “Better make it four,” he said. “I don’t think I can eat eight.”)

Now to the heart of it. World building in any kind of speculative genre is a crucial part of the program. But the trick is to do it without overlarding us with details. Our brains (those that aren’t split by an axe, that is) cannot adequately process or appreciate too many unique details coming at us in a rat-a-tat fashion. We will either have to slow down and re-read, which ruins the flow; or we’ll set the book aside, which ruins the chances of selling the next book in the series.

In the first paragraph alone, I count at least sixteen unique details, all demanding to be a picture in my head, and two stopping me cold and sending me to the dictionary (cuirass, sagaris):

  • stout, blue-bearded
  • long, leaf-bladed swords
  • horned helmets
  • bronze-banded corselets
  • round shields
  • bulls heads
  • green-eyed
  • pale of flesh
  • tawny-haired
  • bronze-scaled
  • cuirass
  • linen tunic
  • trousers
  • soft leather boots
  • tall wicker shield
  • sagaris

The point is there’s an exciting fight going on, but my head is swimming with all these details. There are just too many.

So how many should there be? Ah, there’s the skill part of the equation. The answer is: just enough.

Thanks for stopping by.

Okay, let’s put it another way. Don’t let details derail the action. You, author, will have to develop a sense about this. It may be that you’ll require outside eyes to look at your pages: beta readers who are familiar with the genre, crit partners, perhaps a freelance editor.

What you want is an action scene with essential details. Pick a few that best set the stage and flow them in naturally with the action. In fact, that may be a good rule of thumb (though many writers bristle at rules, and use their thumbs primarily on the space bar): allow yourself only 2 – 5 unique details per page in the opening chapter. Everything else should be action.

One more crucial craft point will help you in this quest: pick a point of view! This passage is in Omniscient, which tempts the author to put in all the things they see in their imaginary world.

If, on the other hand, you filtered this action through the POV of a character, you would naturally become more selective in the detail work; plus, readers will be more fully engaged because it is through character that readers bond with the material. A twofer!

Right now you’ve got three Sherdens and one “she-devil.” We have no way of knowing who, if any of these, will be a main character. Maybe this is a prologue and no one here will end up being the MC.

No matter. You still should choose one of these characters to be the viewpoint. When you do that, the action of the scene will automatically take precedence over the details. And that’s what we’re after. [Note: Third Person POV is usually the better choice, but even in Omniscient POV you can select a viewpoint character. See the excerpt below.]

For laughs I looked up a Robert E. Howard story from the January 1934 edition of Weird Tales. Here’s the opening paragraph from “Rogues in the House,” a tale featuring our favorite barbarian, Conan:

At a court festival, Nabonidus, the Red Priest, who was the real ruler of the city, touched Murilo, the young aristocrat, courteously on the arm. Murilo turned to met the priest’s enigmatic gaze, and to wonder at the hidden meaning therein. No words passed between them, but Nabonidus bowed and handed Murilo a small gold cask. The young nobleman, knowing the Nabonidus did nothing without reason, excused himself at the first opportunity and returned hastily to his chamber. There he opened the cask and found within a human ear, which he recognized by a peculiar scar upon it. He broke into a profuse sweat, and was no longer in doubt about the meaning in the Red Priest’s glance.

Notice that we start with action and two named characters. How many unique details does Howard give us? One: small gold cask. No derailment here. We are caught up in the mysterious exchange (an ear? Really?) and what it could possibly mean. Nothing distracts us from the action, which is a hallmark any Howard story.

Thus, my advice:

  1. pick a viewpoint character
  2. give him a name (or her, if it turns out to be the she-devil)
  3. rewrite these 288 words using only 2-5 unique details
  4. with the action established, use 2-5 details per page until the scene ends
  5. from that point forward be strategic in your use of details. Utilize what you need for world building, but never let the details get so thick they interrupt the flow of the story

Others may have some advice, too, so let’s hear it. Help our anonymous writer out.

10 thoughts on “The Dangers of Detail Derailment

  1. As always, Mr. Bell has excellent advice, and he’s pointed out your writing skills. This page brought to mind something I heard agent Kristin Nelson say at a conference. She sees a lot of submissions where the author thinks starting with “action” means a battle scene, but she passes on them if there’s not a character she wants to care about.
    I need to know who I’m supposed to root for (or against) when I start a book.

  2. I agree with Jim’s advice and observations. His comparison to Robert E. Howard’s evocative writing is apt–I felt there were elements of that in the opening, but the sheer number of descriptive details overwhelmed it.

    As Terry Odell noted above, I need to know who to write for (or against) when I start a book, and I also need to know what they want in that opening scene, and how they feel.

    Thanks for sharing with us!

  3. “So how many should there be? Ah, there’s the skill part of the equation. The answer is: just enough.
    Thanks for stopping by.”

    By this point, I was laughing out loud. “cuirass, sagaris?” Plainly not an epic fantasy type of guy. (Huge grin.) As for Robert E. Howard, thanks for the reminder of what a wordsmith he was.

    Yes, pick a POV and a reason to be battling other than staying alive. Readers want to root for someone and in this melee, who knows?

  4. First off, WOW! The world building was amazing. I am not familiar with the genre but once this is cleaned up and the detail pared down, it should be fun to read.

    My thoughts:
    * long chunky paragraphs
    * too much detail (words I wasn’t familiar with since I don’t know the genre. But that got me thinking–do the people who DO know this genre need the explanations?)
    * I assumed since the author spent so much time on the green-eyed giantess that she was intended to be not only the POV character in the scene but presumably the protag or at least a main character in the story.

    And if she is the POV character for the scene, it will help eliminate some of the detail. AND green-eyed giantess seemed like she ought to be moved farther up in the paragraph so we have someone we’re rooting for pretty quickly after we begin reading.

    Last thing I would add–while opening with a battle is high action and I love a good fight scene, it’s difficult to find that balance between epic fight details and zeroing in on the humanity involved in the fight.

    One of the details the author added that got lost is that green-giantess is ‘incongruously clad’….. More than the epic battle at hand, that implies something about this person–some hint of conflict, but those two simple words ‘incongruously clad’ get lost in all the unfamiliar details the reader is trying to wrap their head around. In short, more fodder for picking a POV character for the scene because that will naturally bring out those details and teasing bits of info which need to be revealed in the opening paragraphs while saving other details for later.

    Depending on what you’re going after in this scene, if the POV is in another one of the fighter’s viewpoints, it could be that they too, are befuddled by the ‘incongruously clad’ woman which throws in a bit of mystery or unease or tension into the scene. Whether we like it or not, as a society, we’ve become quite accustomed to violence, so thinking of other aspects of your scene such as those character tensions can help.

    I enjoyed reading it very much. Great start!

  5. I agree with all of the above. Well said, JSB. I did like this first page, the “epicness” of it reminds me of LOTR. With a little paring down of details and a POV character, as suggested above, this would make a smashing opening.
    That’s a craft tip I’ve learned here at TKZ, and am working to hone in my own WIPs.

    And here’s something else: As soon as I read through the page for the third time, digesting the details, I jumped over and searched “Sherden”. A long wikipedia offering appeared. I read the whole thing, learning who the Sherdens were, where they may have come from, how they dressed for battle, and the conquering of them by Rameses II and the Egyptians. It gave me a place and time reference for this battle. For a history enthusiast, it was quite an interesting read. Maybe some of you TKZers were already familiar with this ancient people-group, but possibly not many others. I wasn’t.

    I also had trouble understanding why a “green-eyed giantess”, dressed like a Persian soldier (does that mean she was Persian, or impersonating one?) fought against these marauders from the sea on their way to “harry Egypt”. Possibly these details are revealed on the second page.

    The wikipedia information was interesting, and I certainly enjoyed the investigation, but when I look for a good story-portal through which to escape the madness of the moment, I’m not likely to choose a tale I have to research just to understand the first page.

  6. Speaking of being sent to the dictionary, I had to look up Brobdingnagian. Thanks, Jim, for alerting me to another gap in my education–I never read Gulliver’s Travels.

    Brave Author, you are fortunate to receive a critique from the master. Study his wise advice. Five years ago, he offered suggestions to a first page I’d submitted anonymously. Those ideas made a radical difference which I have no doubt resulted in a publishing contract for my book.

    The writing is vivid–I can easily visualize every axe slash and the appearance of every character. The scene is beautifully set but overwhelming.

    I love See’s Candy but eating a five-pound box at one time is too much.

    IMO, the best sentence is: “She twisted to one side, tangling the sword in the wreckage of the shield.” I see the blade in the wrecked wicker and the man being thrown to the ground. This is a great example of what Jim’s talking about when he advises to choose “essential details” and combine them with action.

    Save these vivid details and spread them out through the story. Give the reader a POV character to root for and you’ll have a terrific story.

  7. I agree with everything said here so far. There is some vivid stuff here — like spotting some colorful fruits and flowers amid a bunch of thorny brambles. You just need some pruning.

    And while I understand the impulse to use the omniscient voice in saga-telling, it’s just not very modern to reader’s eyes now. What’s not to love about a flame-haired Amazon? (Says this short redhead). But she doesn’t make her appearance until halfway through that too-long first graph and then she’s passively presented on your stage: “She who cast that spear was as alien to the land…”

    I think if you give her the spotlight right from the get-go, we’d be more engaged. I love warrior-women. Go for it.

    Good stuff from a heck of an imagination. Just get rid of the brambles so we can see things better.

  8. Just to refresh my memory, I went back and re-read the first pages of the last warrior-women books I read — The first two Hunger Games. Collins uses the intimacy of the first-person to inject us into Katniss’s world (and head!) It is compelling, immediate and emotionally engaging.

  9. Thank you, Author. I enjoyed your submission — more so, the 2nd read. The first read, I felt like John Snow, sword in hand, looking skyward encircled by corpses of dead details. Brienne of Tarth had Podrick. The contrast between those two characters added dimension. You might consider adding a Podrick-type ‘viewpoint character’ as last sentence of paragraph one, who might express a gut-wrenching observation. I refer to the reaction of Murilo in the Robert E. Howard example from Mr. Bell. For me, that is the hook. I read many genres, and am a fan of Robert E. Howard. Best wishes from an author in training. Thank you Mr. Bell and TKZ contributors for an enjoyable Sunday morning.

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