Too Hard, Too Soft, or Just Right?

By Kay Springsteen

Does it matter if your heroine is wearing a red shirt or a white one? Does it matter if the hero notices the color? I firmly believe in adding sensory details – what the characters experience on every level: see, hear, taste, smell, feel, and think. But it’s been argued that such details are unnecessary, boring, weigh the story down, or that the reader might prefer to fill in the blanks.

Certainly, a fine line exists between too hard, too soft, and just right. That sweet spot in the middle between too many details and too few is the “just right” of writing. But it’s not so much how many details you use as how you present them.

If I want to show the reader how my heroine is dressed, I can describe it.

She chose a red shirt with a plunging neckline and flared sleeves, then pulled on the pair of faded blue jeans with the wide bell bottom hem.

Well, we know what she’s wearing but even I yawned halfway through the sentence, and I wrote it. Now, we could have her examine herself in the mirror and think about how the red adds a bit of vibrant color to her skin and she doesn’t look so pale. We could mention pulling on her favorite red shirt and then describe the outfit from the hero’s point of view.

So what’s the most relevant part of the description to the story? What do I want to show? A flash of color maybe? Or the fact that she’s casually dressed? What the plunging neckline does for the hero? In this case, I opted to show that the shirt was loose and red because the color is what will come back later in the story (when she sees the splash of red and finds her ruined shirt in her suitcase).

The breeze whipped around the side of the house and plastered the loose red shirt to her body, outlining every delicious curve and asset for his eager eyes.

But this doesn’t show the plunging neckline or the flared sleeves. Are they important? Not especially but in order to paint a fuller picture, I can add these details in a sprinkling can fashion further along in the passage. For instance, the hero can embrace the heroine and trail kisses from her neck along the plunging neckline of her shirt to stop where it meets in between her breasts. Or the breeze can make the heroine chilly and she can rub her arms, pushing her hands beneath the flared sleeves of the shirt.

The trick is to use a watering can to sprinkle in the details rather than a fire hose to saturate the reader with sensory overload.  Happy reading and writing!

And check out the Goodreads giveaway for the Regency romance I wrote with Kim Bowman! A Lot Like a Lady giveaway.


2 responses to “Too Hard, Too Soft, or Just Right?

  1. Great tutorial, Kay.
    My brother & beta reader has often reminded me to add sensory details, which I teen to gloss over in first drafts.
    When I’m reading, I find I prefer a more ‘spare’ type of prose — faster pace and less description. Of course, a certain amount of description is essential … but some writers spend pages describing things. By that point, I’m thinking, “Okay, already … it’s a rock.”

  2. I agree with Jeff. I tend to forget to add description. But details like this can help steer the plot. Thanks for the lesson!

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