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Dec 26 2008

Open Question

I spent a goodly part of Christmas Day on the phone with a friend, discussing various and sundry. What interests us here is the bit where we talked about writers and detail.

Detail is one of those bêtes noires of fiction writing. No one seems quite sure how much or how little should be included. Styles range from the stupefying onslaught of minutae during the age of Deathless Prose to the Spartan anorexia of Hemingway. Compare Les Miserables to For Whom the Bell Tolls, for instance: two gargantuan stories, very different styles. Victor Hugo spends a good part of his 1,463 pages plunging off the main path into the thickets of whatever captured his fancy, breaking into the story to write essays on things only tangenitally related to the novel; Hemingway gets the job done in a mere 471 pages, without side trips. You don’t learn quite as much about life, the universe and everything, but at the same time, at least you don’t get so bogged down in detail that you forget what the characters were doing before the author stopped the story in its tracks to describe every aspect of an incidental something.

There are fans of both types of literature. I happen to be one of those who can’t stand Hemingway. I’ve read a few of his stories and attempted a novel once or twice, and I just can’t get involved. It’s so sparsely written that it feels like an outline, especially his dialogue. I need flesh with the bones of a story, or I’m just not able to immerse myself. But I drowned in Hugo’s magnum opus. Only the musical saved me.

I’ve read with close attention for decades now, and I still can’t figure out why some authors manage to detail very nearly every thread in someone’s coat without stopping the story dead, and others get in trouble merely mentioning that someone’s wearing jeans. My friend and I think it has a lot to do with relevance: if the detail tells us something about the character, if it’s in service to the story and not just there from some misguided attempt to make the world feel “real,” then it works. But he and I part ways when it comes to how much detail is necessary or desirable. He likes more left to the imagination: I like enough to form a thorough mental image. I can’t connect to a story unless I can see the people I’m dealing with, the landscapes they’re moving through, and the objects they’re interacting with. As long as the story moves, I don’t mind if the author’s detail is as rich as Belgian chocolate – I prefer it that way.

Detail’s very much on my mind right now because I’ll be writing fiction again soon. I want to avoid worldbuilder’s disease, but at the same time, I want to ensure that the world I’m creating is detailed enough that readers experience it fully. And so, I’m curious: how do you lot like your detail? How much is too much, and how little is too little? Any particularly egregious examples of Authors Gone Wrong? Any prose passages whose detail captivated you so fully that you remember them to this day?

Have at. I’m off to try to wrestle with ye olde basics of rebuilding a world with cracked foundations.

2 comments

  1. 1
    george.w

    “I still can’t figure out why some authors manage to detail very nearly every thread in someone’s coat without stopping the story dead, and others get in trouble merely mentioning that someone’s wearing jeans.”I think the sensitivity of that brake pedal (which stops the story dead) varies as much with the reader as with the author. I prefer sparse writing; others want to count the threads. Considerable argument has been invested in deciding which is the more ‘valid’ approach but the answer probably lies in neurology and personality rather than some cosmic truth of literature. (Reference Thom Hartman’s theory of the hunter-gatherer vs. the farmer.)In practice this means that I do not read long novels. But it isn’t clear to me that short novels cannot convey important and entertaining truths. In any case it is a moot point because I have never been able to wade through all that detail. I suppose being a fan of both types of literature is like being bisexual; in principle it should improve your chances of a date on Saturday night.

  2. 2
    Cujo359

    I’d have to agree with George W., although I’m usually of the opinion that less is more. Science fiction has its own problems, of course, in that people are often reading it because it’s about a different reality than the one they live in. Kim Stanley Robinson often puts a lot of detail into his writing that doesn’t seem germaine to the plot, but it helps me imagine what he’s talking about. A good example of an author getting it right for me would be Connie Willis’ Doomsday Book. There was a lot of detail required to explain the plot and the situation, but at the same time it flowed very smoothly, and some day soon I’ll probably read it again, if I can remember where I left the book.

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