As a writer, you may or may not consider the amount of weight you give the details in your stories. But if it’s not something you’re currently paying attention to, I’m going to explain why you need to, and how to avoid giving weight to a detail or object in your story that shouldn’t have it.
First let me explain what giving weight to a detail means. Details are important for painting the picture of our story. They add color, sound, light, dark, smell, touch — in essence they breathe life into our story. In addition, they can provide subtle cues to the reader on objects that are important to the story line, or will become important later.
The easiest way to demonstrate the weight of an object is through the Chekov’s Gun Principle. To paraphrase, the point of the principle is that if you have a gun make an appearance in your story, at some point, it must go off. A weapon carries a weight without any attention being added to it. The mere mention of it, even if it’s casually seen in a dresser drawer, signifies its importance.
Additionally, weight can be given to an object by the amount of details or the specificity of a detail used to describe the object. Sometimes writers intentionally add weight to an item with the intent to misdirect the reader; however, it’s more common for a writer to weight an item unintentionally.
For example, adding a number can add weight to an item. “At the knock on the door, Clara gathered the 178 tissues from her coffee table and shoved them in the trash.” Just adding that number makes you pay more attention to the tissues. How does she know that? Why are there so many? It’s oddly specific, and if there’s not a reason for her to know how many there are, it draws more attention to the tissues than is necessary. But it could have a purpose too.
“Clara hated crying. She hated crying over her ex-boyfriend even more, so when the tears started rolling down her cheeks she reprimanded herself. Tyler was supposed to come over in an hour and pick up the rest of his belongings, and she didn’t want him to see her crying. So she swore that every tissue she wasted crying over him, she’d add one extra minute to her morning run. And she hated running, more than she hated crying.” Now adding the detail about 178 tissues makes sense, it gives it meaning.
Spending a little extra time describing one object out of a list of objects, will give the reader a cue that that particular object is more significant than the others. On the other hand, you don’t want to waste several paragraphs describing an object that is never mentioned again.
The number of times you mention an object can add weight as well. It can be something mentioned in passing, but if it keeps appearing, the reader is going to start wondering what is so significant about the item. For instance, if I am telling a story where I mention a compass necklace worn by my character Kaitlynn. It may just be a detail provided to help the reader visualize Kaitlynn. But if I’ve mentioned it four times in passing, like “her necklace caught on her jacket, and she had to flip her collar to free it.” And then a few other times, I’m signaling to the reader to pay attention to that necklace because it’s important and will be used later. As a general rule, if an item appears twice it’s a coincidence, if it appears three times pay attention, because it’s important.
Take a look at your manuscript, and see if you’ve spent a considerable amount of time describing an object. Did you add unnecessary weight to the object? Keep in mind that there is a difference between a red herring and giving importance to an insignificant object. One is intentional while the other is not. Don’t add weight where you don’t want it, because for the reader it’s very jarring and will lead to reader dissatisfaction if you built up expectation that you then didn’t meet.