Ever read a book and end up putting it down because you kept waiting for the actual story to start? If you have, then the writer was probably using too many details. But how many is too many? This is a vital question to ask, because details are little devils, and they can wreck an otherwise wonderful story. Even the writers who are actually lawyers don’t write their fiction using the detail-obsessive language of law school. Who would read it if they did?
First of all, if you intend to write – and let’s face it, fiction writing is, to quote Lawrence Block, “telling lies for fun and profit” – you’re in a position similar to any entertainer. You have to fool people into suspending their disbelief so they can enjoy your fantastic tale. It’s wise to remember the following quote, which may have been made by Abraham Lincoln, or perhaps not. “You can fool all of the people some of the time. You can fool some of the people all of the time. But you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.” If you keep this in mind, then what I’m about to say will make perfect sense and not bother you in the least.
No matter what you write, or how well you write it, someone will really love it and someone will completely hate it. True story. Just ask Stephen King and Anne Rice. My good friend Eric doesn’t like King, who is one of the most widely read and widely lauded authors of our age. And I don’t like Anne Rice, who is a very popular author is several fields. I can’t speak for Eric, but I can tell you my issues with Anne Rice.
Boy does she love them.
No single sentence was bad. In fact, her writing style on a micro-level was very good. I enjoyed the structure of her work, and I could clearly see in my minds eye what she was describing. But that, in the end, was the exact reason I put the book down. Description. Page after page of Louie’s clothing and the plantation and the servants and the fields and the manor house and Louie’s clothing. On and on. It sure was beautiful, but I was waiting and waiting for the story to start and eventually I couldn’t wait any longer. She lost me as a reader.
But obviously lots of people like her books. So what’s the issue here?
She couldn’t fool me.
I have great respect for her as a writer professionally; she’s sold more books than I likely ever will. But that doesn’t mean I love her books myself. And I don’t have to either. There are so many writers, so many styles, that I just move on to the next author when I find one I don’t like.
But the subject of this post, the reason for putting this down and sharing it with the world, is details. Anne Rice might have too many details for me, and Harry Turtledove might have too many for you, and King or Grisham or Gibson or whoever might have too many or too few for any particular reader. But there really is a line beyond which lies “too many” details for any writer. The trouble is, it’s hard to know when you’ve crossed that line. I’d like to offer a few thumbnail rules that may apply.
1) Length: If you’ve gone on for more than a few paragraphs describing something, then it’s too much. In my writing, I try to include all the description I need in just a few lines. I like to keep a reader’s imagination active and not do all the work for them. Also, I’m not good with fashion, so when I’m describing clothing, I’ll often say something like “she stood there, her long red dress fluttering in the breeze.” That’s it. I tend to spend more energy on mannerisms than on physical details. Also, it’s bad to “info dump” when first introducing a character or a scene. If you feel the need to do that, break the details up over the course of several pages, or at least several paragraphs. You may really want to describe the castle on the hill in limitless detail, but please, please don’t. The reader will be making a sandwich before you finish, and they might never pick your books up again.
2) Technical: If your details are precise enough that only someone well versed in a certain field will understand, you’re giving too much information. Harry Turtledove does this with equipment, as many military fiction writers do. I tend to gloss over those parts because they only thing I know about guns is which end to point at a bad guy. This issue trips me up personally when I’m dealing with clothing (what is a juliette sleeve? What is a french cuff?), styles of dance, and a few other topics I’m not really good with. You will have your own areas, and when you write, you might avoid these. So the areas you are good in (Ukrainian Easter eggs, for example), you might give excessive detail. Be aware you may lose – or at least temporarily bore – some readers when giving too much technical detail.
3) Extraneous: Not every detail you give will matter directly to the flow of the story. In fact, the fact that a character is wearing a long red dress might not matter to the story at all. However, it might matter to the reader to properly understand the character, and in that case, the detail is not only relevant, but actually vital. However, knowing that her dress size is a five will likely never be meaningful to the story, so don’t include it unless it is. This area, I feel, is where most people make detail mistakes. This would be my beef with Anne Rice, thought she would likely argue with me on it. The point is, think about the details you’re including and only leave them in if they add to the story directly, or if they are vital to understand the character, or the ambiance of a scene, or in some other way are vital to the story. If not, cut them. As they say in the theatre, if there’s a shotgun on the wall in the first scene, it has to fire by the end of the play. We really don’t need to know what the wall was made out of, or how thick it was, do we? We just need to know there was a wall, and a shotgun was hanging on it.
As writers – and as readers – details are our best friends and our worst enemies. Treat them with the respect they deserve, and get rid of them if you don’t really need them.
This isn’t law school, after all!