View Full Version : How much detail is too much detail?
June 18th, 2002, 01:23 PM
This is something I have thought about a lot lately.
How much is too much?
Does one detail every little movement, item of clothing, gesture, thought and feelings of a character? (if you are using their point of view)
Do you describe each aspect of the house, street, land, boat, castle, whatever?
How much do you leave for your reader to imagine from the words like "pot bellied coaster" or "cobbled inn yard"
Many works seem to me to be bogged down with such large "info dumps" that the action is lost.
This has led me to make a decision regarding my latest piece of work (of which a chapter is up among the others on this site)
I wanted to cut the description of characters and places to the bare knuckles. To limit the info dumps, having the info delivered by the characters actions and own words.
To see the world they live in through their eyes, without having to explain everything. Having the reader work a little to piece things together.
I wanted the pace to be fast, hopefully it is.
I also wanted to not use one character's POV, I wanted the reader to patch together a picture of him. Then as the story progressed tear that picture to pieces. To leave the reader not sure of the character at all.
I don't know yet if I have succeeded, as I am still awaiting my editor's final comments.
But I just wondered what others thought of this approach? And what type of approach they are using in their own writing.
June 18th, 2002, 06:27 PM
This is something that I put a lot of thought into when writing. Here are some of those thoughts:
The amount of detail is directly related to the pace of a story. If you want a fast pace, then too much detail will slow you down, and vice versa. But a balance is necessary, no matter the style you are going for. Too much will bore most readers. Not enough will have your story reading like a screen play, or, worse, it won't be believable. But everyone has a different idea of what is a good balance.
But detail also depends on the kind of story you are writing. If you are, say, working on a historical fiction novel, these stories need to be realistic to the era you are writing in, and also informative to the readers who are maybe not so aware of the intricacies of the time period. If you are writing in modern day, where everyone knows what a car or skyscraper or atm machine is, there is no need for a lot of detail. It's already familiar. Which is why you rarely read modern day mysteries that are over four hundred pages. The descriptions are spent on character personalities and pushing the plot forward, not on explaining the economical systems, land formations, religous icons and other such things that often come up in a lot of, for example, fantasy/psuedo medieval novels. So setting and genre will affect the amount of necessary detail as well.
But the big question about details seem to arise when people get into "world building." Obviously, you want to flesh out the world, make it realistic, make it believable. But it can be taken too far. I've read many fantasy novels that put way too much effort into making the world "Life'like," and the novel was a bore. I think the trick to this is avoiding too many info dumps and sparing the reader the details that don't have a direct impact on the plot. Because, at the end of the day, most readers are interested in characters, love stories, heroes, villians, and plot.
As for myself, I have always tried to "imply" a lot. I use details to get my point across and set the scene, but I try to do this with as few of words as possible. I always try to let the reader's imagination do as much work as the actual writing. For example: I would say "cobbled inn yard" and stop there, unless there was a detail that was important to the story. This doesn't always go over well. Some people who have read my stories say that there isn't enough detail for their tastes. But then again, others, usually non-fantasy fans, say that they like that I'm not very "wordy." But I'm just mimicking my favorite authors. Most of my favorite books have been written in a very to-the-point manner, so I've been working at fine tuning my writing in such a way.
June 18th, 2002, 09:51 PM
Although Alucard pretty much said it all, I'll add my two cents anyway.
I don't think there's really a right or wrong answer to the question of detail. It's a matter of taste. Some readers like a lot of description, others want the story to be more fast-paced. I agree though that if a story is set in a historical time period, there should be enough detail so that the reader can picture the surroundings on at least a basic level.
Although personally I love a lot of detail (it allows me to picture a scene more exactly in my mind) cetainly not everyone is like that. I would suggest you just write what you feel you would like to read. Some people will like it, some won't. You can't please everyone (as every seasoned writer will attest to). :)
As I mentioned otherwhere, I thought that your story The Hat Man could have used a bit more detail. But you would only need a little bit, a phrase here and there, to create a clearer picture of the streets of this town, and the ship, in the reader's mind. It's rarely necessary to devote an entire paragraph to description.
June 18th, 2002, 11:44 PM
Find a style you like and run with it.
June 18th, 2002, 11:47 PM
Personally I love having plenty of detail so I can picture things as clearly as possible. When I write I tend to try to make the readers feel like they are right there in the story at the start of a scene and then taper off a bit on the detail after that.
I use the level of detail though for a few different things in my stories. When I change the pace of the story I'll change the level of detail. In scenes with more action I'll use less detail as well as shorter words and sentences while in scenes with less action I'll do the opposite. I think the resulting contrast makes the action scenes seem more dynamic and tense.
I'll also use detail to increase the tension in a scene. If my characters are searching through the woods for the bad guy they will take note of just about anything and everything that bad guy might be lurking behind. Or I might set up the scene so the reader knows the bad guy is lurking in those woods, but my chracters don't. Again I would use detail, in this case details about a casual stroll through the woods, to build suspense.
Another use I have for level of detail is to help show a character's mood or emotion or even personality. A soldier might focus more on weapons and armor, a spy might focus more on uniforms, and the blissfully ignorant will focus on neither.
Mostly I like to write in the first person so the amount of detail I put in depends on what I think my narrator will notice under the circumstances.
June 19th, 2002, 03:43 PM
The amount of detail is so intricately tied to the author's ability to evoke the right response in the reader. Put in as much as you feel is necessary. SOme author's need only a paragraph, while others require chapters. I have heard from many fantasy readers that too much descriptive content bores them no end. That seems to be a rather prevalent response.
The correct choice of words can do so much more than page after page of descriptions. What is so great about fantasy is that the reader's imagination can build upon the author's world. It can be so difficult to generate the emotions and the moods that you may need in order to create the right atmosphere within which your characters live. It is not just the color of the buildings and the height of the walls that helps to form a picture of your world in the mind's eye of the reader. But, when you do it right, it's like magic! You know that you have succeeded.
June 20th, 2002, 07:11 PM
Can't remember which author said it but the gist of it was "don't be too descriptive, let the readers have the opportunity to use their imagination"
Although Modesitt gets away with often enough. :(
June 20th, 2002, 09:34 PM
i think its more a question of what you feel MUST be described - what you feel your reader wont grasp unless you tell him/her.
in a way descriptions set limits on a reader's imagination, and i think people who like fantasy HAVE imaginations, otherwise they wouldnt be reading fantasy
on the other hand, descriptions, if well done, add greatly to the richness of a book. but when im writing descriptions, i always end up thinking - why do i need to write this? the rule i follow is - write as much as you feel comfortable with, as much as comes naturally. when it comes to a point where detail takes extra effort, let it go.
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