Book Note: The Featureless Plane

I was thinking about the process of writing, which is to say, thinking about appropriate amounts of detail.


Yeah yeah, writing a book, going well, lots done, lots to come, you’re up to speed.

In related news:

I was thinking about the process of writing, which is to say, thinking about appropriate amounts of detail, specifically from the perspective as a fledgling author.

My rough draft is rough indeed, with the intent of getting to the end of the book (if not the story) and then going back over it and not only cleaning it up (editing) but fleshing out some of the bare bones details.

Let’s go to the board, and I’ll show *and* tell my thoughts on detail.

Here’s a made-up character for the purposes of this exercise:


So far, so good, amirite?

Then what happened?


Whoa, this is deep. Are you following this?



Duh-rama!!!! /fans face

And finally…


BOOM! /pencil drop

So: Yes, this is really stripped down and stupid. But, I just gave a quickie story that did not provide much except:

  • Names
  • Actions

It made sense though, right?

Well, this is my approach to my rough draft. Rather than search for the perfect word to describe something, I prefer to say “the breeze felt nice” and come back later to describe how it was not unlike, without being directly comparable to, the very winds that cascade down from Mount Olympus itself, leaving tendrils of fog in its wake amid the olive trees and flowering shrubs that bunched up around the base of it, bringing sweet relief if only temporarily to the sweltering masses, struggling to go about their business, each gleaming with sweat, united in their curses.

Blah blah you get the point.

Here’s what we don’t know about our above characters:

  • What they look like
  • What they’re wearing
  • Their motivations (other than John, sparsely)
  • Where they are
  • What the weather is like
  • What year this is supposed to be
  • Their employment histories
  • Age/race/religion/creed/life philosophies


As told previously (somewhere), one of my co-workers is making her way through one of my older drafts and she is really getting sucked in with the bare minimum. For a made-up example, I could have said:

John went to the beach.

She would get really excited and rattle off all of the things that were happening at the beach. Nothing was said about any of that, but the suggestion of the place was enough to get her imagination working overtime. (It helps that in this case, had this actually happened, she really loves the beach.)

Tossing off additional details, even slightly, goes a long way.

John went to the beach. The roar of the surf soothed his frazzled nerves from the reaming he got from an angry customer earlier that day.

I could keep going over this sentence and adding more and more detail. What he is wearing. How he got there (car? walked?). Seagull sounds. Kids playing in the sand as John walks by.

Some parting thoughts:

  • Unless and until some sort of descriptive language is added, your character exists on a featureless plane.
  • That may be alright for certain situations, as the reader may be more interested in what is being said or thought by the character in that moment.
  • But actions must have reactions. If John trips over a log, and a bunch of people see it happen, someone should laugh and point. Or someone should express concern. Or something.
  • There are any number of ways to build “texture” around a bare-bones statement. John trips over a log at the beach. What does he land on? How does he land? Does he say anything? Does he get sand in his mouth? Eyes? Down his shirt? Is he going to be okay? Did he sprain or break something?
  • How much of that detail do you wish to provide and keep the material accessible?


In closing, if you’re psyching yourself out about not writing amazing prose in each and every paragraph, I suggest laying down the “bones” of the story and going back over it.

Hope this helped somebody, somehow.

Author: Ethan Johnson

Words like silent raindrops.

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