Balancing the details

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I’m thinking about my writing today and writing in general.  Thought I’d share.

I like to think that every writer, no matter their genre, struggles from time to time with how much detail to put into their works, and how much to leave out.

For myself, I have written long, expansive, detailed chapters full of descriptive passages that can fill the mind with exactly what it is I’m seeing, what I’m trying to get the reader to see.  I’ve also written shotgun type blasts that are quick, down and dirty, with little bits of impressions sprinkled here and there like pinches of the right spices – again, meant to give the reader an idea of what it is I’m seeing in my brain.

I don’t know that there is a good and a bad here; everyone likes what they like (which I’ve said before).  Sometimes, it’s the lack of details that does the trick, because the reader’s imagination fills in the gap.  Other times, you have to give as much detail as possible because maybe you’re talking about something the reader can’t imagine yet – something that you’ve created, so you have to guide them along.  But could you do that just as well with nibbles instead of full bites?

I always think back to Tom Clancy when I get on this track (but Robert Jordan would be another good example, George R.R. Martin, Harry Turtledove, Tad Williams…).  Clancy can write the most detailed passages; every little bit, every flaw in the concrete, cloud in the sky – it can all end up on the page.  In the beginning, I loved that – absolutely ate it up.  Later on, not so much.  I lost the faith with Clancy, so to speak, during one of the latter Jack Ryan books (or maybe it’s the middle now, since he wrote some more) – I want to say ‘Sum of all Fears’ but I could be wrong on that – it’s been a long time.  Anyway, he wrote this very long chapter about a car being built, step by step.  We, as the reader, were taken along the assembly line, saw the fatal flaw happen with the gas tank, saw the car move along, being put together, then loaded on a ship headed for America, saw/was told how the salt air from the sea made the flaw worse, corroding the gas tank, then watched as it was purchased/picked up and driven out into some fog where an accident caused the gas tank to explode on impact killing a bunch of people and setting off events for the rest of the book.

It was very detailed – heck, I still remember the danged thing now, after all these years.  But did it have to be so detailed?  Honestly, I read it – but it bored me to death and made me not so eager to read anything else of his after that.

On the other end of the spectrum, I feel anyway, is someone like L.E. Modesitt Jr.  A lot of times, I feel like his books go by very fast, despite the details.  The details are there, but they are nowhere near a Clancy or a Jordan (in my opinion).  Sometimes I get a little bored with the hand made stuff that his characters (especially in the Recluse saga) end up doing for a living, but even that leaves gaps for my own imagination to fill.  If I want to.  Which is good.

I also think back to books by authors like Anne Rice, whose descriptive passages make you feel your shirt clinging to you because you’re reading about the muggy Louisiana summers.  That’s powerful.

I’m always working on something, whether I post it here or somewhere else or not at all, and the struggle is to find that balance between too much detail that’s going to bore the reader, and too little that won’t hook them and make them want more.

The more I write, the better (I hope) I get at that.

~P

1 comment for “Balancing the details

  1. December 7, 2009 at 10:15 pm

    And some times you want to up the detail or down it to slow down or speed up the action. Since it's kind of hard to keep up the pace, if the narrative is dropping its eyes to examine a strange red and blue beetle scurrying along a fat blade of grass dropped in dew still from the early morning. A shard of sunlight drives a pinprick of light through a bead of water to glare upon the little beetle's faceted eyes… etc. Suddenly you've forgotten what the heck is going on, while up above there is a battle raging across a field, with a medieval castle in the background waiving a hostile flag. Though maybe you want that strange juxtoposition for the pacing. It all depends, and like you said, is up to personal preference.

    At the end of the day I think we can only hope (as aspiring writers) that our preference is shared by enough others that we can make a living doing it.

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