What is Too Much Detail?
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.