The Conservation of Detail

February 1, 2017 by Evan Braun


If you cast your mind back to high school science class, you may recognize terms like “the law of conservation of matter/energy/momentum/mass/etc.” These are scientific principles basically stating that matter and energy (et al.) cannot be created or destroyed, but rather they just transition from one state to another. I know I wasn’t that great at math and science either. Such concepts are a struggle for many.

But have you heard of the law of conservation of detail? If not, and if you’re a fiction writer, then pay close attention. Understanding this simple “law” will add some key tools to your writing toolkit.

So what are we talking about here? The conservation of detail seems deceptively simple on the surface. It means that your writing will benefit from taking the time to carefully describe details that are important to the story, and suffer when you waste time describing details that aren’t important to the story.

The basic principle is that all detail is not equal. For example, if your character picks up the phone and that phone looks pretty much like every other phone ever invented, then it’s okay to just rely on the reader’s pre-existing knowledge of what phones look like. It doesn’t need two paragraphs of its own. Ditto for the bathroom sink and garbage can under the desk.

“But all those details say something about my character,” you may argue. “Showing Jane schlep through her morning rituals tells the reader how careful and precise she is.”

I wouldn’t necessarily argue against that (but more on this later). The key, however, is to balance your handling of detail so that you don’t slide into tedium. In this area, writers aren’t always the best judge of their own work. Editors really are your friends.

Because here’s the catch. If you describe the phone and the sink and the garbage can in great detail, the reader might mistakenly get the impression that the phone, the sink, and the garbage can are important to the plot for some reason.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard of Chekhov’s Gun at one point or another. Anton Chekhov was a nineteenth-century Russian playwright who famously summed up his eponymous dramatic principle this way: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

By spending too much time describing mundane aspects of your setting, the reader ends up having a hard time latching onto what’s important. Indeed, conserving detail isn’t just about speeding up the story; it’s about clarifying the focus.

Those two paragraphs devoted to describing the phone will lead the reader to assume that the phone matters. Per Chekhov’s gun, maybe that phone, introduced in chapter one, will be used as a murder weapon in chapter three. If something like that doesn’t occur as the plot unfolds and the phone never comes up again—especially if this sort of thing happens repeatedly—the reader will get frustrated.
Even if the phone does get used as a murder weapon later, heaping too much detail on it early will detract from the payoff later. It will somewhat give away the surprise. So a bit of detail goes a long way; too much really bogs a story down, in more ways than one.

Of course, like all so-called laws, there are exceptions. If you’re intentionally trying to throw the reader off, you can add details to irrelevant objects and actions on purpose. You have to be careful with this, but red herrings can be helpful tools in building effective mysteries. Another exception has already been mentioned: sometimes a seemingly insignificant detail can ground the reader in the setting and serve to illuminate the character. For example, taking a lot of time to put on their makeup could say a lot about their vanity. Again, just be sure to use this technique sparingly and in moderation.

Ultimately, this feeds back into the broadest possible writing advice an author can receive, and indeed I say this over and over again: less is more. It really is. It can’t be emphasized enough.

About this Contributor

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Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored three novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has released two sequels, The City of Darkness (2013) and The Law of Radiance (2015), completing the series. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.