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Details matter in stories, right? I mean, they have to. The smallest moments define stories, making or breaking the flow, determining what stories are popular and which are just wasted ideas. The art of the details is what determines whether a story will become popular far more often than just content. Though, on occasion, like Lord of the Rings, the content becomes a serious strength that overrides the details and the story that they support. In many ways, Lord of the Rings succeeded by finding an army of readers that just didn’t know enough to believe otherwise.

What are these small details that can make famous authors and bring down even most studious of workers? Where do they come from? The innocuous of course. Sometimes, like in the Lord of the Rings, plot pacing made significant acquiescences. Taking over were pages devoted to how the world around them looked. Yet, for reviving the subculture of fantasy, his books take a pass, despite their critical weakness in the details.

So, yes. The details matter. It’s not just the name of the writer, though on occasion, that holds some sway. Below is a real story, of someone I know attempting to tell a story only to become caught up in the little details that didn’t matter.

Sunday, I’m sitting in a pub in center city Philadelphia, about 4 p.m., waiting for a former teacher to begin a short story reading. As we wait, our teacher asks us what we’ve done since graduating. This is polite conversation. I explain my current job. This piece of knowledge is met with polite inquiries.

My companion, however, regales us in a tale of how he’s moving to another country because, well, he got fired. Okay, that’s not why he’s moving, but you know, that’s a little how it came off. Why he got fired? That’s a whole other story that doesn’t need details explained in blow-by-blow fashion. For polite conversation, something as simple as ‘I left my job. I’m moving to Australia’ would have sufficed. Instead, we have this awkward moment.

(At some point, we’ve all been fired. If you haven’t been, you’re going to be. That’s how things work.)

Thoughts: Knowing when to leave details out in a story, when all the details are important and other times just excessive is difficult. Most of this depends on an elusive concept known as flow. What seems excessive to some people can be regarded as priceless details by others. Personally, I think JRR Tolkien over narrates Lord of the Rings. Way too many details that interrupt the flow of the story. Then again, I didn’t sell millions of copies or inspire an entire genre, so maybe I just don’t know what I’m talking about. (I also think he had some other major problems. Maybe I’ll explore those some time.)

Think of the jokes that take too long to reach the punch line. Small talk has a place, but not in story telling. Unless it’s a really really really good story, the details really don’t matter. Give it a once over and move on. The details matter, but more often than not, they’re misplaced.

Details can definitely add flavor to a story. They just need to be the right details. Anything else is really just a waste of everyones time.

Too much detail?