Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TTYU Retro: Caught between too much pointless detail and not enough? Choose your "logic of caring."

This post was originally written in response to writer Linda Adams. Commenting on my post, "How much worldbuilding before you write?" she asked,

"Any additional recommendations for someone who is not detail-oriented? I can do the research, accumulate the details, but they don't mean anything to me. I end up either having not enough or putting way too much in. Makes it hard to figure out what to research. ... According to all my critiquers (this is a very consistent comment), my writing lacks details. When I put them in, I do too little or go too far, because they don't really mean much to me. Someone at Capclave said to just look at my coworkers desks to pick up details I could use, and I'm sitting here thinking: Yeah, and then I'd shovel all my observations in the story and everyone would tell me I'd gone too far with the details. So it makes research tough for me because I'm not sure what to research for specific details. Right now I'm reduced to: I have a garden. Gardens have trees, so I need tree names."

Perhaps some of you have run into this issue. I certainly have! Linda, thanks for asking this question, because it's an important one.

So what does make the difference between important and "extra" detail?

It's not whether details are available, because details are always available. If you think about it, the world is full of so much detail that we can't even begin to comprehend it all. As Linda says, gardens have trees, and trees have names, but they also have parts, and scientific names, and then there are the flowers, and who the heck cares about all that?

In my own experience, that is the fundamental criterion: whether someone cares about the detail, rather than the detail itself.

Now, you may say that this doesn't even begin to solve the problem, and you'd be right. How do you know what readers are going to care about? It's all a matter of taste, right? 

Fortunately, though reader opinion enters in, it's not entirely idiosyncratic. There are (at least) three logical ways to deduce what kind of details will be most relevant for readers. You can choose one or all of the above!

1. Genre
Readers will often come into a book looking for a particular type of experience. In fantasy, or in romance, the word "lush" is often used in praise - not so in thrillers or police procedurals. As a first step, consider what your audience will be looking for. If you're writing Regency romance, the details of people's clothing and the details of what rooms and homes look like are going to be very important, and demanded by readers. If you're doing very technology-filled science fiction, people are going to want to be able to glimpse how the world is put together and the kinds of technology that keep it running. All these details must not drag a reader off the main conflict of the story, but if they are absent, people are likely to feel the loss.

2. Character
This is the one I use the most. Characters, their cultural backgrounds and attitudes, and their differing perceptiveness, make a perfect filter for detail. Ask yourself what your character is looking for, and why, as he or she enters a room. That will tell you a lot about what details the character will notice, and if you are writing in tight point of view as I do, that basically means that you've eliminated all other details from contention. If the character doesn't notice it, or care about it, then it doesn't matter. Only if you are trying to make sure some special detail makes it in - like for example some clue to a puzzle you're leaving for the reader, which the character notices but doesn't understand until later - will you have to include something that the character doesn't pay much attention to. To go back go Linda's garden example, there's really no reason you need to know the names of the trees in a garden unless your character is a gardener, or a botanist, or for some reason deeply cares about the names of trees. Otherwise the character's emotional impression of the garden is more important, and the details you choose should contribute directly to that.

3. Metaphorical meaning
This is the one you'll often hear people laughing about. "The curtains were blue, and was it because the character was sad? Why does it have to be because the character was sad, when the curtains were just $&^%$ blue?" While I can see the humor in the joke, metaphorical meaning is a really good way to think through what details you would like to include. In some sense, you can tie it back to the emotion of the character, but this isn't the same as working with the character (as above) because it can be done with or without internal point of view. Even if you are working with a considerable degree of narrative distance, the details you choose to include will reflect - or can/should reflect - the character's attitude, and what's important to the main conflict about that scene.

I'll give you an example from my own work. Recently I was revising a scene in which the Lady of the house is about to go see her abusive husband in the hospital. She's feeling very conflicted about his illness, and feels like she needs strength, so she asks her servant to get her a jacket to wear (the "detail" is that she chooses to wear a jacket rather than going without). Her servant gets the jacket, internally realizes she wants it to be like armor, and thinks that he needs to become part of her armor as well. The first part of his realization, I suppose, is leading the reader into the meaning of the jacket detail (armor). But the second part, where he feels he needs to become part of the armor, evokes two things: a. the servant's desire to protect her, which he has always had, and b. the servant's desire to be close to her (to be worn). To be more specific, the servant goes from wanting to be her shadow (suggesting one kind of relationship) to wanting to be her armor (suggesting a different kind of relationship).

I hope this gives you some meaningful and logical criteria on which to base your choice of details. I have some other posts on this issue (Insider setting details/Audience setting details, Making description subjective) and I'm also happy to discuss in comments!



  1. For me, description and worldbuilding should always be in relation to the characters. What do they see, taste, hear, smell, touch. How do they relate to it? How does it move the story along? That's how I focus my worldbuilding because otherwise it can become unnecessary detail that clogs up the word count.


    1. Jai, I have to agree. I've recently started tightening my flow of details and I took it back to how the characters see the world. I essentially have three main characters and they all see the world with fundamentally different viewpoints; one see power relationships, the other sees companies and brands, the third sees interpersonal relationships. So whenever I'm writing from a specific viewpoint, I try to have all details flow through that--would character A notice a given detail, and if so, how does that impact their emotional state and so forth. It's really helped me clarify what details go in and out of the story.

    2. Yes, indeed. Tying it back to the character viewpoints is a great way to filter. Thanks for your comments, Jai and Sam!

  2. I agree with the reasons you've mentioned here, but you also have to consider the placement of details within the plot. I want to know basically everything the character consciously notices in the act of overcoming an important obstacle. There ought to be a lot of detail if a character is, say, locked in a dark room hopping around on a broken leg trying to look for a tool to pry open the door. There might be less if bullets are flying or if three arguments are going on at once, because things are moving fast and the character can't take as much in.

    But a lot of books contain less tense actions as characters pursue a goal. For instance, maybe a character stops by the same bakery every morning hoping to see a certain person who never shows up. After the first time, the daily trip to the bakery could be just mentioned in sketchy summary--until the trip when something unusual happens, and then it needs detail again...

    1. Melissa, plot and character are often related for me, but I definitely agree that certain details have to show up at certain points in order to make the plot comprehensible (like clues to a mystery, or pieces of a puzzle). You're right to point out that different scenes require different levels of detail - I see that as a matter of the character's perception based on his/her state of mind and level of agitation, rush, etc. Similarly with the bakery situation, it has to do with character noticing. People will tend to notice things that are outside the realm of what they consider normal, so adding details to things is one way to indicate that they stand out from normality.

    2. If Louis L'amour suddenly slows way down and describes details of the trail that the rider isn't thinking about -- you can expect him to be shot from ambush at any moment. ;-)

    3. Good point! Thanks for your comment. :)

  3. I see descriptions -- worldbuilding details, mood and exposition -- as an integral part of every story, because they are essential to creating the illusion of reality. So to answer the question of how much detail is enough, I'd say as much as is needed to convey the illusion that the storyworld is real and fully functional even beyond the selected frame of the story. :)

    Great post, Juliette. I always like your factual approaches.

    1. Thanks, Vero! I agree with you about the illusion of reality. Because I work with worlds that are often very large, I use the character as a filter for this as well. Basically I put in enough detail to convince me that this character believes in the reality and functionality of the world, and that the character has a plausible knowledge set about his/her surroundings.

      I appreciate the comment!

  4. When I talk about details and viewpoint, I ask my writing students to consider a specific scene. They are a nice restaurant with their true love or someone they are wildly attracted to. What would they notice? What details would be important?

    Now imagine the same scene, but you know someone wants to kill you.

    I also like Poul Anderson's advice to use at least three of the five senses in each scene. That helps even the description impaired to make a scene more vivid.

  5. Thanks for writing this up, Juliette. One of the problems I have is that I don't really notice things in a way that's helpful for me to the story, so it's difficult for me to ask what a character would notice (not to mention I'm writing in omni). One of the writers in my critique group had done a story set in Cold War 1980s. She sprinkled 1980s details throughout, but I missed every single one of them. I needed her to go up one level and do something more obvious. Then I could do top down and connect all the details into a whole. Then they made sense to me because they were a part of a bigger picture. I don't draw conclusions because the details are in there; I draw conclusions because the details are connected to a bigger picture. However, they often aren't, which can cause me to miss things in a story that other people see (mysteries are particularly problematic for me for this reason, because the details are intended to not be noticed).

    What I've been having to is start at the top down and connect the details into the story. But the ones are the bottom of that -- the telling details, the world building details, the details people look for -- end up missing because they're almost too small for me to see and work with.

    Linda Adams - Soldier, Storyteller

    1. Linda, I like how you described linking the "obvious" level with the lower levels of detail, and I wonder if you might not be able to use a similar technique to work from the top down. If you're using omniscient viewpoint, then using a metaphorical, author-intent logic to create this top-down detail set would probably be your best bet. Once you start getting into lower level details, you can maybe give some thought about what kinds of things your characters might notice (and decide whether that's relevant to your writing process). In Snow Falling on Cedars, the author gives a lot of time to a description of the details of how a snowstorm wrecked a port area - and it not only makes things visually very interesting, but also reflects in a metaphorical way (disaster, injury caused by forces outside human control) on the characters and their situation.