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What is Too Much Detail?

July 27, 2010

When it comes to settings and our casts of characters how much detail is good, and how much is too much? And what does it even mean to give too much detail? Does it mean getting bogged down in backstory? Or maybe it’s trying to paint a picture so precise that the physical description goes on and on.

But what is too little? If we don’t describe what our characters look like how will the reader know? If the building has Ivy growing up its side, that just adds depth to the world I’m creating…doesn’t it?

I’ll start by saying there are to firm answers. There is no formula that says, give us your character’s hair color, eye color, describe her laugh, tell us what she’s wearing, and why she’s still single, and voilà, you have a complete character.

Last weekend I saw “Inception” (If you haven’t seen it, don’t worry, I won’t give anything away) and during an early scene, when one character was teaching another how to construct dreams, he explained that she should only use enough detail to make the dream seem real, but not to detail everything…let the dreamer’s mind fill in the details themselves.

This struck me as surprisingly good advice for writers. If I look back at my favorite characters, many of them exist, fully formed in my mind, with surprisingly little detail from the author. There is one female character in particular, of whom I have a very vivid picture, but upon rereading the book for the umpteenth time, realized that the only physical description of her was of her fully dressed, soaked to the bone, and covered in weeds. Instead it was the narrator’s impressions of her that allowed my own mind to create my own image of her. In this way the character was more real to me than she ever could have been had the author tried to convey an exact character.

So what is the right amount of detail? It’s a line your going to have to draw for yourself, then figure out how to walk it. But when you’re trying to paint a picture for your readers, remember that while a picture may be worth a thousand words, you shouldn’t think of it as an exchange rate. If you’re worried that your giving too much description, you probably are.

Next week Dale will be examining detail in relation to plot and meaning. Both this post, and next week’s, grew out of discussions sparked by the movie “Inception.”
9 Comments
  1. July 27, 2010 5:18 am

    Thanks for sharing this insightful post on details. And now not only am I curious to see “Inception” but I am dying to know who this memorable character is and from which work. Do you mind sharing?

  2. July 27, 2010 5:43 am

    The whole point about referring to ‘Inception’ is the attention to detail in a dream in which the characters are involved. Dreams may have bizarre twists and shifts of time and space, but there are also esoteric details that must be adhered to so that the dreamer feels he is in his own dream. The dream creator creates the mise-en-scène in which the person dreaming feels comfortable, or he realises that he is dreaming.
    Stories, whether short stories, or novels, must have enough details to fill out the character, or the reader will not feel an empathy. Without enough details it would be like reading a piece, and thinking, “This is like sitting through a 1950s production of ‘Waiting for Godot'”.
    In my opinion, as boring as bat shit.

  3. July 27, 2010 6:50 am

    This post is really relevant to me at the moment as I’m reading a book with way TOO MUCH detail. Everything is described in minute detail and it’s boring me. It would be such a good story if it didn’t keep going off at an angle to describe the book, the taxi, the family history etc.

    I was talking to my step mum at the weekend and she was telling me how great Stephen King is with descriptions of people. Apparently (I haven’t read any King for years) he never describes people, but puts the image of them in your head firmly. I may have to start reading some of his books!

  4. July 27, 2010 7:47 am

    My pet peeve in writing is descriptive narrative for descriptive narrative’s sake. I tend to skim over large chunks of descriptions – whether they be of place, person, or action. I hate it.

    I didn’t realise just how tedious a full blown physical description of a character was until I read Clive Cussler’s release last year and every character is described in infinite detail – even if they have a small walk on part. Ack! Less is more. I don’t want the author to tell me how someone looks – I want to, as you say, fill in the gaps for myself. As much as they are the author’s character, I want them to become my character when I’m reading it.

    The only time in my writing I ever try to put in physical descriptions is if there is something odd or interesting about the way they look – something in there inspires questions in the reader, or hints at an interesting past etc.

    The dullest writing award goes Umberto Eco for “The Name of The Rose” and it’s page and a half description of an etching on a door. When I asked if the door was integral to the plot and that’s why there’s such boring depth of description shared. I was told no. I stopped reading after that.

    As an aside – I loved ‘Inception” – I’ve now seen it twice.

  5. adampb permalink
    July 27, 2010 7:52 am

    I wonder if the shift away from intrinsic, minute detail is a reflection of the time in which we live. I have been teaching Northanger Abbey and Wuthering Heights, which use details far from sparingly. However, the description has a purpose, and while tough to plow through, it has a point. Modern audiences seem to prefer a cinematic approach, kind of like the mise-en-scene; those snapshots of description so that the viewer/reader can fill in the blanks. Or the plot drives the narrative so that description is unimportant to the development of the narrative.
    One of my favourite authors is Tim Winton, who is very poetic in his description. He is able to convey great detail with carefully selected words.

  6. July 27, 2010 8:55 am

    Interestingly enough, I was reading something this morning by the writer David Lodge about “implication” . Sometimes, it can be interesting if we include gaps and silences to let the reader imply for themselves what is going on. This is a technique often used with taboo subjects but it can also be used for dramatic purposes.

  7. July 27, 2010 2:35 pm

    Detail should be used little and often, and only as necessary I feel. What’s scarier – a full description of the monster, including exact lenght of the fangs, size, colour? Or that sense of dread that there is something there, and that blank “something” is filled in by the reader, who populates that space with their own worst fears, creating a monster unique to each reader, and uniquely terrifying.

    Details are best left suggestive, like with the best paintings. Look at the Impressionists. Their work was not photorealistic, but it hinted at the world, and the viewer assembles the brush strokes and fills in the blanks with the image. That’s why I enjoy watercolours so much. You hint at details with soft smudges, blocks of colour, shade and highlight, and let the viewer construct their own world.

  8. July 28, 2010 6:44 am

    It’s the singer, then, not the song, Yeah?
    When I read Jane Eyre, I think I lost the will to live, when I had read page after page of description. Yet the very long passages concerning the Salinas Valley and the Hamilton family and every beautifully written bit of detail in John Steinbeck’s ‘East of Eden’ had me gagging for more. I hate it when I look towards the last page of any Steinbeck novel, and I find I have far too many pages left. Frederic Prokosch has the same effect on me, me, but Charlotte Brontë? Aargh!

  9. July 28, 2010 3:12 pm

    I can’t stand over-description – it kills a book for me. I barely made it through the Lord of the Rings trilogy because of the paragraph after paragraph of unnecessary wanking about the trees and the fields and the rivers…I mean, wasn’t there a plot in here somewhere? I found the movies to be much better because in true Hollywood style, they cut the fluff and only made scenes with the meatiest, most emotionally provocative parts of the novels. I want novels that do this to begin with.

    Readers are imaginative folk by nature, they really don’t need a setting play-by-play most of the time, as much as authors enjoy throwing those in there. A handful of sentences aptly placed will work just as well.

    Paul – Hemingway talks a lot about the same concept of “implication”:

    “If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

    Elmore Leonard says this a lot more succinctly: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

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