My Struggle with Detail Minimalism and Self-Conscious Writing

Recently I decided I was finally ready to read On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. You may remember Melina as the author of the beyond-amazing Finnikin of the Rock. I’d heard her other work was just as good, and so I didn’t immediately seek it out.

I wanted to save it. To savor it. I was totally right.

On the Jellicoe Road is one of those writer-altering books, and I will never be the same. But it made me look at my own writing and confront some problems I’ve noticed but never consciously verbalized: I over-explain. I’m self-conscious. And I believe in adverbs.

These problems manifest themselves in my dialogue. My characters tend to analyze each sentence someone speaks. Often times while writing I wonder ‘how in the heck do other writers do it?’ because it seems that if my character’s don’t ‘react’ then I’m being boring, but if they do react then I’m writing awkwardly.

I seem to feel compelled to add modifiers to almost each sentence as well. From describing what someone’s face is doing to how their voice reads. It only occurred to me recently to consciously delete that stuff out, but now I wonder if it will read as boring or vivid to the reader.

I believe in the power of writing as a form of telepathy, and I absolutely believe in the beauty of minimalism and letting readers fill in their own details. I also believe in ‘trusting’ the reader, yet still I struggle.

What is your philosophyHow do you balance the lure of explicit, lush detail with beauty through minimalism and the reader’s own vision? How do you combat self-consciousness yet maintain an emotive character?

I guess it’s time to return to beta readers to assure myself that I’m on the right track. Your thoughts, however, are always appreciated :-)

<3, Savannah


6 thoughts on “My Struggle with Detail Minimalism and Self-Conscious Writing

  1. Rowenna says:

    Great questions! I, too, believe in adverbs, used judiciously, of course. (Clearly…I just used one in that sentence lol!)

    For me, I strive to find the balance by using the “savory” detail–the detail that says everything a paragraph could say in a few words. It’s hard! but so rewarding to either write or read a detail like that. For instance, CS Lewis describes a place in one of the Narnia books as having “a purple kind of smell” which says nothing and everything all at once–it captured the entire scene for me with that one, chewable detail. I also aim to “conserve details” by a detail never just saying one thing–for it to, for instance, show a character’s reaction and a cultural norm, or introduce a setting and further the plot. I don’t claim to have it down, but I try!

    • Savannah Foley says:

      I heard about the method of 3’s from my friend Jess Corra recently… when a scene begins, only give 3 details about it, visual, auditory, and/or olifactory, and then don’t talk about it again.

      I love your method of ‘savory’ details. I’ll keep that in mind as I revise, thanks!

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  2. linda says:

    Ooh, I loved On the Jellicoe Road, too! And I am very fond of adverbs. (But not so much in dialog tags.)

    I think I have the opposite problem — when I read I don’t pay as much attention to details and descriptions, so when I write I have to be more conscious about putting them in to make sure I don’t have disembodied voices moving through a generic backdrop!

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