1. Dryriver
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    Dryriver Senior Member

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    Is Complexity, and a lot of small Detail in the descriptions in a Novel a good thing?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Dryriver, Mar 24, 2012.

    Hello friends,

    I'd like your opinion on this: Do you enjoy novels that are complex in structure, and have a lot of what you might call "fine-grained detail" in the prose, such as little descriptions of a lot of objects, people, actions and other things that surround the Main Character as the plot progresses?

    I personally don't like simplified/dumbed-down writing that is short on complexity/detail, and I very much enjoy the challenge of reading something that isn't "a quick read" or "a page turner".

    IMHO, the harder a book is to read, and the more concentration it demands from the reader, the more sattisfaction you ultimately get out of it, and the more you are likely to get something out of re-reading the novel some day (perhaps discovering things along the way that you missed during the first read).

    Am I wrong about this?

    Should one keep complexity/small details in check, to some degree, for the sake of making the book more "accessible" to casual readers?

    Or should one go for "maximum complexity, maximum detail", and trust the average reader to be able to get to terms with that complexity and detail?

    I'll say it one more time: I personally don't like simplified/dumbed-down/edited-down storytelling. I like my books complex, with a lot of intricate detail, and not too fast paced (no "page turner"), and, yes, a little hard to get to grips with initially.


    What do you folks think about this issue? Is complexity & detail a good thing if one's goal is to create fiction with some "literary value"?


    Thanks,

    Dryriver
     
  2. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Detail for the sake of detail is noise.

    I favor a "lean and mean" style. Imagery is fine, but keep the wordiness down, and keep the descriptions relevant. Let teh reader's imagination fill in the details. Choose words with loving care for clarity and accuracy, not for flowery extravagance. A good verb trumps at least half a dozen adjectives, or a dozen adverbs.

    The richness comes from character depth and appeal, and gripping storytelling.
     
  3. Aramis
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    Aramis Member

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    Complexity and detail is only a good thing if you never notice it while you are reading.

    If the book isn't accessible to a reader then unless the writer is aiming for a specific market then the writer has failed.

    All books should be page-turners.
     
  4. Dryriver
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    Dryriver Senior Member

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    I don't know if I agree with that. Brave New World, for example, is hardly a "page-turner".

    It is written in a somewhat complex, labored, scientific-language sort of way. It really isn't the easiest book to read.

    Yet Brave New World is considered an all-time classic, that gets read/studied in a lot of classrooms to this day.

    I personally find that a lot of "page-turners" are too simple.

    Yes, they sattisfy for a couple of hours.

    But after that, you never go back for a second read or think much about the themes in the book...
     
  5. Kaymindless
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    Kaymindless Contributing Member

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    If it stops the reader and kicks them from the story, you're going to have problems. They're good, yes. Not every novel has to simplified as you call it. But it must flow with the story. If you stop to detail every single flower and every single piece of technology, three things are going to happen. I'm going to put the book down and not touch it again, I'm going to skim past your detail and miss the actual important things or I'm going to use it to put me to sleep. My opinion, it must be important with the story and flow with it. Details for the sake of detailing or slowly me down is useless.
     
  6. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    I think there's a balance to strike. I enjoy detailed descriptions of food and clothing and scenery, and it's also what I write best. It immerses the reader in the world, and brings everything to life. You could just go for the "lean and mean" approach and hardly describe anything not pertaining to the plot or the character's actions, though for me that would feel bland and boring, but go too far and you slip into purple prose which is never good. Your prose should imo be flowing and elegant, but it shouldn't be filled with unnecessarily complicated words, and you shouldn't use more words than you need to. Don't get that confused with just long descriptions though, as some things simply take some describing. The important thing to ask is can the description be trimmed down? And most importantly, don't let it get in the way of the narrative. A great banquet is an excellent opportunity to go into lots of description, but on the other hand please don't pause halfway through a pitched battle to describe an enemy's armour. And don't spend whole chapters with tonnes of flowery description and hardly any plot progression. Make it fast paced and concise.

    So to sum up, there's not really any straight answer. Detailed description is good in some places, but not so good in others.
     
  7. Erato
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    Erato Contributing Member

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    I don't agree that all books should be fast paced. Both are fine.
    Detail can set the mood of a scene. It can be used in many ways. If a detail is important, mention it; if it's not, spend very few words on it. You don't want the reader to remember a scene because you spent two paragraphs describing a vase that had no importance to the story. Mention the vase, say it was intricately painted, and move on. The reader will forget it. That's fine. The effect of reading those words will remain. If the character is standing in a villain's palace, he'll take note of how cultured the decor is. Vases. Statues. Chandeliers perhaps. The chandelier may be necessary because there'll be a fight scene later and it will fall on someone's head. Spend a few more words on it, because you want the audience to remember it later and not have to go turning back pages saying, "I don't remember any chandelier!" Give no more detail than is necessary to set the mood.

    Canned response: It depends on how well you write it.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    All books don't have to be fast paced. That is correct. In fact, an unrelentingly manic pace can become boring in its own right. You need to manage the flow to keep the reader interested.

    But the pace does need to continue forward. If it stalls, the reader will set the book down, possibly never to return to it.

    There is a time for protracted description. But you mist be aware of the price it exacts on your pace.

    The hint is in what I said earlier. A sustained frenetic pace loses all its impact if there is no relief or contrast. You can use leisurely scenes to enhance the impact of the faster paced scenes. And yet even a leisurely scene can develop tension.
     
  9. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I enjoy a complex plot - I don't enjoy a complex telling to the point that the plot, the characters, and the readers get lost. As others have said, lots of description can be good in some instances, but there needs to be a reason other than the author showing off their poetic side or their vocabulary. It needs to be important to the story, either setting the mood, pointing out details that will come into play later, giving a deeper understanding of the characters... Otherwise, it's just like the long-winded orator who's speaking only because he enjoys the sound of his own voice, not because he actually has something to say.
     
  10. Cassiopeia Phoenix
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    Cassiopeia Phoenix Contributing Member

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    I like details, because I don't have much imagination, but it depends. Detailling everything without a clear reason to do so, in my opinion, it's uncalled for. Some plots demand that the narrator describe details because they have a role. But describing and detailing too much without an actual point or reason only makes the book harder to read... And it's pointless.
    As a writer, I don't like to waste my time and my vocabulary with things that won't make my story go forward, simple as that.
     
  11. lorilee
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    lorilee Member

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    I've always found the phrase 'show, don't tell' to be a good thing to strive for. You don't want to have to tell your reader everything, you want what you write to create an image in the reader's mind. At least, that's what I like when I'm reading. Don't let the words get in the way of the story.
     
  12. Elgaisma
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    Elgaisma Contributing Member Contributor

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    It depends who is writing it. My work includes a lot of detail, but I weave it into the action and story.

    My very favourite novel isn't a literary classic, but what made it for me was the detailed descriptions which gave it a visual, colourful, warm feel. Victor Hugo can expound for me but I struggle with it in Herman Melville's work for example.

    Personally, I think it is one of the things JK Rowlling got exactly right in Harry Potter and is why it translated so well visually onto the screen.
     
  13. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with Cogito that detail for the sake of detail is noise, but I don't favor a "lean and mean" approach.

    Readers aren't all the same. Different readers are looking for different experiences when they confront a novel. At the risk of sounding a bit non-politically-correct, readers have different levels of imagination and intellect. Things that bore one reader might engage and fascinate another. Some readers want an exciting, action-packed story (I guess a "page turner") that isn't too hard on the brain, while others want a lush, detailed story that may be more leisurely paced, but which grows deeper and more rewarding on each rereading.

    So there isn't just one audience. A writer has to decide who he's writing for. I know what I write will bore many people, but I also know that others think it's good - I've had a lot of good feedback on my work. And I write stories that I hope are reasonably challenging, but not too cluttered with unnecessary detail.
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    I agree with minstrel. And will add that even among readers there can be a wide range of tastes. I often read books that have spare, lean prose. I'll also read books that are dense and wordy (Mervyn Peake's books, for example). The former is perhaps easier to do while still maintaining the interest of the reader. If you are going to have a dense work, you have to be that much better with words to make it interesting. But authors can certainly do it (Nabokov being another example). Generic as the advice sounds, it really come down to how well you write it.
     
  15. Pchew
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    Pchew Member

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    I like it when it has enough description so i can see it clearly in my head, but i really don't like too much description. It just gets boring to me too fast.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    You want to tickle and tease the reader's imagination, not club it to death like a bloody baby seal.

    A tight phrase or two can paint a vivid picture.
     
  17. NeedMoreRage
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    I'm a pretty terrible reader: I want to get through books as fast as I can and I rarely re-read books. I don't see much to gain from reading a book multiple times because it just consumes too much time. So when it comes to books, I typically enjoy ones that are more to the point, and that means less descriptions. I have an active imagination so I don't need pages of details to tell me what something looks like. Although I make an exception to the rule if it's a description of a character's thoughts. If it is describing something interesting, like a very important city, and the description isn't long-winded, then I will enjoy it. But if it is just being used to inflate the word count, I usually start skipping paragraphs.
     
  18. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I like the writers that makes you see a place or whatever they wish you to see without endless paragraphs of boring description that the writer thinks I need. Sometimes I actually think certain passages are more for the writer than for the reader. For me the ideal is a short description that gives you the feeling for a place or a person by just pointing out the most vivid things about it and which let me form my own picture. Too much details can disturb because if the writer fails to make you see it, it also distract you from making your own impression = confusion. Better rely on the readers imagination and leave some things out.
     
  19. Dryriver
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    Dryriver Senior Member

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    I agree with this. If you want a simple, action-packed, fast-paced read, you can read the Hunger Games trilogy, something like the Davinci Code or watch a typical, simplified ("dumbed down" I call this) Hollywood movie.

    I believe that good writing with literary and "re-read" value needs to be slower paced, more detailed, and more philosophical/ponderous in its approach.

    To me, to streamline the prose for fast-reading or easy-reading is to kill all the poignant little details that can really bring a story-universe to life.

    I personally like detail in novels. And I personally enjoy a hard read.

    Also, the more difficult and intricate a novel is, it seems, the more likely it is to find a place on the "Classics" shelf.
     
  20. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I personally re-read a lot of my favorite authors - and they write mysteries, thrillers, horror, etc. I'm not sure I'd want to re-read something "ponderous", or even philosophical, but I've re-read many of the classics several times, and enjoyed them as well as my re-read mysteries. Good writing = good reading = good re-reading.
     
  21. jg22
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    As a reader I enjoy sumptuous detail and intelligent observation of human interaction and how that relates to the character's world. I like to suspend my disbelief for a while and be convinced that this world and these characters and their story really exists in some distinct space that I'm peeking in to for a while. Fine detail can help give the impression of a more solid world; more believable, more immersive, more perfect.

    As a writer there is a certain aesthetic, a certain mood that I wish to convey in my writing that captures the time and place of the story, as well as the philosophical themes. As a result, it's not a fast paced story, but it isn't meant to be. I write intimate moments that are of no consequence to the over-arching plot (a hair cut, for example), but instead infuse humanness and believability into the theme, and serve to paint a vivid picture in the reader's mind. I use movement, colour, symbolic imagery and sensations to keep the scenes moving all of the time, but certainly don't shy away from intricate detail or poetic license. I want the reader to keep turning the pages because they are compelled by the story, characters, and are immersed in the world I've written- not simply because it's easy to read.

    However, I do think it all depends on what you are writing. A fast paced thriller does not require leisurely descriptive prose. A slow burning meditation on life and death does not need to be written straight to the point. There isn't a one size fits all approach here. The way you write should be determined by what you write.
     
  22. Dryriver
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    Dryriver Senior Member

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    This is what I believe as well. Lots of fine details - like small brushstrokes on a large canvas - can, I believe, convey a sense of realism that simplified, streamlined writing simply cannot.

    I also don't particularly like fast-paced writing like:


    >>>>>>

    "Ellen got out of bed, took a warm shower, put on a creme-colored pantsuit and some eyeliner, tied her hair back in a bun, ate two slices of buttered toast with a cup of coffee in the kitchen, grabbed her keys and laptop bag, and drove her Chevy Impala uptown determinedly, to meet Carlos Montero at his 54th Street office on the 15th floor of the Thompson building, and convince him to give her another shot at the job."

    >>>>>>


    This sort of 'compressed' writing where 30 - 45 minutes worth of action happens in a sentence or paragraph is fine in a novel that is all about pace-and-action, I think. Good for a so-called "page-turner".

    But it misses out on a lot of things like:

    How did Ellen feel when she woke up? What did she dream about, and does she remember it? What did she think about in the shower? What made her decide to put on this particular suit/dress? How big is her kitchen? How is it laid out? What color or make is her toaster? What type and brand of coffee does she brew? Where does she keep her keys? What brand or colour is the laptop bag? Is her car in the driveway, or does she have to back it out of the garage first? When did she buy her car, and why this particular model? What is the traffic like on the way uptown? What does Ellen think about while driving? Who is Carlos Montero, and what does Ellen know about him? What strategy does Ellen have in mind to convince Montero to give her another shot at "the job"? What exactly is "the job", and why does she want it so bad? What happens if Montero says "No" or "Sorry Ellen, but...". Where does Ellen park her car around 54th street? How does she get from there to the Thompson building, and what does she see walking to it? What does the Thompson building look like from the outside? When was it built, and what architect designed it? What is it like walking into the building lobby, or riding up its elevators? What does Ellen feel as she gets closer to talking to Montero? Does Montero see her immediately, or does his secretary ask Ellen to take a seat and wait for a few minutes?

    Et cetera, et cetera.


    Even the most unimaginative writer can write the compressed sentence I gave as an example above.

    But writing the same action in longer form, and with good detail is more challenging, I think. Probably also more rewarding to read, no?
     
  23. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'd be wondering what that has to do with the story. Some of those questions obviously are part of the storyline; others could be setting the mood. Others - "What color or make is her toaster?" - make me wonder why I would possibly care. Is that particular color or make susceptible to explosion, or give off mind-altering electrical waves? Is she OCD and had to have that color and make? There's a difference, IMO, between enhancing the reading experience and just rambling on.
     
  24. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    And I personally like paragraphs - I didn't even want to read your list of questions, detailed though they may be. You do have to make it easy on the eyes!

    Also, your example of "fast paced writing" is not fast-paced at all. Your example was pure and simply BAD writing, and I don't think anyone who actually writes would ever write like that. For a start, few of us working on our own novels are gonna miss out on the fact that we must explore the character's feelings and set her in a particular environment so we could set up atmosphere and anticipation for the rest of the story.

    For myself, no, I hate "fine in-grain detail" - because, frankly, call me unimaginative if you want, but I cannot picture the scene in EXACTLY the way the author wants me. I just can't see all the detail and then it just becomes words, because it ceases to paint a picture for me. All I see is the brush strokes and not the whole picture, thus I cannot appreciate it. For example, I didn't really like the sheer amount of detail in Stieg Larsson's Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I couldn't care less about this or that business partner, whom I'd never hear about again. I equally couldn't read Tolkien, even though I loved the movies and I trust Tolkien is an excellent writer. Don't get me wrong, I'm impressed by their cheer creativity, esp Tolkien since I love fantasy, but my mind is just not wired that way.

    And I think it's silly to give detail for the sake of giving detail - give detail where it is necessary, where it helps you understand the story or the character better, or helps build atmosphere and pacing for your story. For example, in my novel, there was a point when my MC was looking for help after his loved one got kidnapped. He runs through the city and into a square. Should I now describe every detail of what he sees, such as the grainy surface of the rocks and the exact shoes a passerby happens to be wearing, and perhaps the many colours of the buildings and that one of them had curtains while another did not?

    The answer is NO - because that would completely and utterly destroy all sense of pace and atmosphere for the MOMENT. You must write according to the moment of your story, and there will come points of tension when it needs to be quick. But most importantly, you must think: would my character see all this detail when he's panicking that his girlfriend's about to die? I don't think so. He would see a blur and some detail if they're prominent enough, but otherwise he will only see what he's looking for. So to keep my character and story realistic, my writing must reflect the emotion and situation of my character. And that is not always in the detail.

    But then again, I'm more inclined towards poetry - I prefer things that are implied. I prefer writing that gives me enough room to imagine it, so I can feel it, make it my own, but also gives enough detail to guide me and let me know exactly what the author means and the atmosphere, so I can feel and see the place. I think it's easy to say, "Alice, in her blue and red stripy pyjamas and dishevelled hair walked slowly towards long kitchen counter, where the white toaster was, which was dirty with crumbs and rusted from lack of maintenance." (or something like that) - it's easy to do info-dump, that's exactly why it makes bad writing. But to be poetic, leaving room for imagination while steering your reader in exactly the direction you want him/her to go - now that takes skill.
     
  25. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't think those details you gave example of would make a story more "intelligent" than the "dumbed down" fast paced story. Many of those details doesn't have any importance to a story at all, so why would a reader want to spend pages and pages of reading about them? Not all high selling, "fast paced" stories are "dumbed down", actually. It takes quite an artist to give a lot of meaning to things described in few words. I think that is the real art. Not describing things for no purpose just to make believe that the story has more "depth" than others. It's not like the more words you use to describe the better literature.
     

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