1. JEH
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    JEH Member

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    Level of detail. Good or bad?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by JEH, May 18, 2015.

    I've gone all out on my story at describing everything happening to the smallest detail. My protagonist is experiencing something he's never experienced before and is arriving at a place he's never been, so its not like I'm describing something mundane like every detail of his car journey to work or every detail of him going to a cafe. However I realise that little's actually happened in the story. Several pages have gone by and I've gone all out into writing every thought that crosses his mind, what he can smell, the movements he makes and trying to build up suspense and atmosphere. I'm not sure however whether or not that will bore people. He hasn't actually done anything yet and nothing's really happened in the story. My intention at the moment is of course to focus on what the protagonist is experiencing rather than focusing on plot points, but I have no idea if readers like that sort of thing. I do know of some award winning books that do that or even award winning films that draw every detail out, but then I also know if its done wrong people won't like them.

    Is drawing on huge amount of detail a good thing or is it wiser to speed things up a bit? I know some award winning books that have also told their story in a brief flowing commentary that way and still can be emotionally invested so I'm not sure what approach to make
     
  2. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    So, there is no yes or no answer to this question, of course. It's all going to depend. But you've mentioned an important point in your post that would definitely be a factor for me, the personal me, as a reader. If nothing is happening yet, if I've not been given a reason to tie all this detail to an event, a person, a happenstance that is important to the story, then this may well be off-putting to me. If you give me clues and reason to know that this new place and experience matter greatly, then I'll buy into it. If I keep reading and find it was just a bunch of exposition that still isn't tying in, you'll have lost me.
     
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  3. AlcoholicWolf
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    AlcoholicWolf Contributing Member

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    If it's not relevant to the story, get rid of it.
     
  4. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, this is so important. You shouldn't just describe stuff, but make us understand how it affects your POV character. He should be fully in the moment. Why he is in this new environment, and what he makes of it, should be very clear.
     
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  5. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    Yes. :) And to give an example since the OP mentions well received novels that draw on detail, I give Jose Saramago's Blindness as an example. The story starts out giving a very a detailed description of the city street, of the cars, of the people, of the buildings lining the street. We are given a verbal Polaroid, so to speak, but we are also already rolling into the story. All of this is told with the first victim of the blindness that Saramago introduces as the center of action. Every visual detail, every detail of behavior (and Saramago paints typical Latin behavior and interplay with stunning accuracy and sensitivity) is given within the context of a place, a person, and an event. At no time does he leave us wondering where the heck is this going, even though we really don't know where it's going to begin with. What matters is that it is going somewhere, it's moving, it's alive.
     
  6. JEH
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    Thanks for your replies. I have been describing a guy's journey somewhere in huge detail, because it is a first for him. Tbh I think I wrote on here too soon. I've only just started and I guess really I should stick to the mindset of write crap for you then make it good later haha. I guess when its ready to be picked apart then altered is when I shoud've asked that question, but it was still good to ask for future chapters
     
  7. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    I find it's helpful to tie all description into a character's state of mind.

    He's riding through a mountain pass for the first time. How does this make him feel? My character, who grew up on the Plains, finds that the mountains seem to hem him in on all sides, and he's disturbed by the fact that he can't see very far ahead, that the trail angles off far too quickly for his comfort. Furthermore, the footing is unsteady, and even his horse is struggling a bit. While the reader doesn't know yet WHY he is in the mountains, they soon find out. But it's obvious this is not his territory, and he's feeling claustrophobic and uneasy. Clues to his character and his situation.

    Another scene I wrote soon afterward, contains a woman looking around her ranch kitchen, focused on how contented she feels, looking at what her day's work has accomplished. She loves cooking and keeping house, and this is the point of the description of the interior, with the table set for supper, the dinner waiting, which is seen through HER eyes. Another clue to character. When these two characters come together, later in the chapter, it's obvious that they both come from entirely different environments, and have different outlooks on life. However, they do 'click.' And each one learns more about the other, just by paying attention to the differences between them.
     
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  8. sprirj
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    sprirj Contributing Member

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    The first chapter of Charles Dickens bleak house is all description and no plot. I did not read chapter two.
     
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  9. peachalulu
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    peachalulu Contributing Member Reviewer Contributor

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    You never know what's going to be relevant. So it's hard to say. You could write heavy and then second draft decide what you need to keep and what you need to lose. Or you could think about what you're trying to say/do with this scene and write keeping that idea in mind.
    My thing would be to find an angle for this - why is showing his experiences important before working in the plot. Why is it important for the reader to have this information. What's the angle. There doesn't need to be a flashy reason but there should be something to tie the story together.
     
  10. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    I'm starting to think of details and description as being analogous to the old Alfred Hitchcock drawing that resembled his head. The key is to identify the essence of the experience and as with drawing, a few key lines is often more effective and impactful than precise detail. Perhaps I am being too minimalist and this certainly applies on a contextual basis but its seems worth of consideration.
     
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  11. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Don't be afraid to give your readers a rich, sensory experience. The trick is to make description of setting relevant to the story in some way. It's got to matter. Just describing the scene from the author's point of view isn't usually enough. Just having a character standing and describing his environment isn't quite the thing. This environment has to mean something to the character before it will mean something to us.

    If it's familiar to him, let us know how he feels about it. When he notices detail, does it make him want to rearrange the furniture, or haul out the hoover, or drag his girlfriend into the room so she can see the pictures of his grandparents on the wall? Does he notice that his mother has finally got rid of his father's saggy-seated leather armchair? If so, how does this absence make him feel? If he hated his father, this probably feels like relief. If he loved his father, this might made him sad or resentful. If it's a new place he's never been before, is he gawp-mouthed in wonder at how beautiful it is? Any particular details that catch his attention? And why? Are they in contrast to what he's used to? Are they exactly what he's been looking for all his life? Or is he scared shitless of some aspect of this new environment? Does he want to get back home NOW?

    Let us see and feel any setting through your character's eyes. But don't feel you need to skip over setting as quickly as possible. Setting is as much a part of storytelling as anything else.
     
  12. JEH
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    Tbh I think description and setting is my strength in writing, my weakness is dialogue and characterisation. So far this is the only properly developed character, giving his lifestory and then I've written many pages as he journeys to a place where he's never been but will be starting a new life there. So I've gone into loads about what he's thinking and feeling as he travels alone and the many fantastical sites he sees as he gets closer to this new place and apprehension of what it's going to be like.

    I'm dreading writing new characters because I've got to make them believable and all talk differently so you can tell who's speaking without saying who and that's probably where my detail will get sketchy and I'll keep going on to describing the setting instead
     
  13. Justin Rocket 2
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    Justin Rocket 2 Contributing Member

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    This is Chekov's gun, er, Chekhov's gun (Chekov's gun is a phaser). Detail must matter and what matters should be established as early as possible.

    When I write my early drafts, I just try to squeeze in as much detail as I possibly can. In later drafts, those details either get used or eliminated.
     
  14. Dunning Kruger
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    Dunning Kruger Active Member

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    That's a good perspective. Get as much down early knowing you can and will figure out the right details later on. I tend to obsess too much over the first draft.. Thanks for sharing.
     
  15. A.J. Pruitt
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    A.J. Pruitt Member

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    I feel compelled to post a warning about over doing too much descriptive detail in the narrative. All one has to do is read on the final books of the Children Of The Earth series (Clan Of The Cave Bear) by Jean M. Auel. Her first three books were compelling stories with profound plots mixing romance, mystery, and danger using strong character involvement. When she published her fourth book, “Plains of Passage” then the final chapter in the series, “The Land of The Painted Caves”, she was heavily criticized for her losing her story telling ability and resorted to narrative fill.


    Her fourth book, “Plains of Passage” was vastly criticized by the inner circles of writers and the media. They said that Jean M. Auel used needless narrative fill up to 30% in order to complete her novel. Critics said that this mistake by an author of her stature would likely end or vastly shorten her chances of a continuation of the series.

    Sadly, she ignored the critics and published her sixth book in the series, “The Land of Painted Caves” that was said to be not much more than a tour guide of the ancient cave in France. Her once epic plots were very weak and her main characters became secondary, supporting objects to the painted caves.

    In conclusion, if your descriptive narrative is an intricate part of moving your story forward and/or is critical to enhancing your protagonist’s life or work and, is important to your stories plot, use your descriptive narrative very carefully. If all you are trying to do is fill a page with words, drop the temptation.
     
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  16. Diatribe
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    Diatribe Member

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    As a writer friend of mind once said "Detailed vagueness is a great enough tool to give the reader everything they need to know and not enough to overwhelm them with fluff that just clogs a page." (yes, this was a cut-n-paste from a Facebook IM I had months ago with him)
     
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  17. Gloria Sythe
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    Gloria Sythe Member

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    I am one of those who over does the descriptive narrative bit in my writing. It's a bad habit. The critics of our writing club have told me that people already know that grass is green and it flows like a green ocean in the breeze. As A.J. Pruitt so clearly stated, don't let your story turn into a tour guide leaving your characters as the supporting cast. If your narrative is overwhelming or louder than the movement towards the end plot, re-write your piece.

    PS:..... Teeeee heeeee. Mr. Pruitt I found an error in your post. You are actually human, just like the rest of us.

    GS
     
  18. Shadowfax
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    Shadowfax Contributing Member Contributor

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    Why do you want to write "so you can tell who's speaking without saying who"?

    Aren't you prepared to include speech tags, to spell out who's talking?

    People will tend to speak the same if they come from the same background. If, however, you have a Geordie and a Cockney (or a New Yorker and a Californian), you've automatically got two different speech patterns, different emphases and they're automatically identifiable without naming. Try to visualize a stand-up comedian from each environment - how would they speak? - try it out loud.
     
  19. ChickenFreak
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    I think that there needs to be a reason for the details. The beginning of Agatha Christie's The Mirror Crack'd, as an example, has quite a bit of detail, but every bit of it has significance--it's all letting us know things about Miss Marple's current life situation, her frustrations, her irritations. The sound of the vacuum cleaner, for example, isn't just the sound of the vacuum cleaner--it's about change:

    'Your singing is much pleasanter than the horrid noise that vacuum makes,' said Miss Marple, 'but I know one has to go with the times. It would be no use on earth asking any of you young people to use the dustpan and brush in the old-fashioned way.'
    'What, get down on my knees with a dustpan and brush?' Cherry registered alarm and surprise.
    'Quite unheard of, I know,' said Miss Marple.
    (The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side, Agatha Christie)

     
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  20. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    One thing you said puzzled me. Why do you want the reader to figure out who is speaking without you telling them? I think that's not a particularly good road to head down. Creating individual speech patterns for your characters is good, but that's another issue.

    The worst thing you can do to a reader is not to bore them, but to confuse them. If a passage bores them, and they're already deep in your story, they will simply skip over it and move on. (I'm not saying this is a good thing, by the way ...fix the boring bits if you can.) But once a reader starts loses track of who is speaking to whom, or—worse yet—assumes one person is speaking when it's actually another, then you do risk losing them permanently.

    There seems to be a fad on the go just now for unattributed dialogue. Unattributed dialogue CAN work in the hands of a very skilled author, but somebody who isn't an expert at it would do well to simply attach dialogue to the speaker enough times so the reader doesn't lose the plot. Literally.

    You can simply attribute with the word 'said.' Or you can go the other direction, and blend the dialogue with action that makes the speakers' words make sense. That's my preferred method, because it gives the writer more tools to develop the scene. You may fancy a minimalist "said" approach—which, by rule of thumb should be used after every three lines of dialogue between two people, and more often if you have more than two characters in a scene. Or you may prefer the full bhoona of action attributes mixed in. But—when it comes to dialogue attribution, the readers need to be sure who is speaking in EVERY LINE. Never force them to backtrack to make sure. Man. Nothing takes a reader out of a story faster than needing to backtrack and count lines of dialogue to figure out who is speaking.
     
    Last edited: May 19, 2015
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  21. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Be careful also that you're not just going all out to describe things because that's what you love to do most in writing. Be aware also of the fact that, as interesting and unique as these fantastical places are, 90% of it is probably interesting only to you. I always think of it like baby pictures. Nobody wants to actually browse through the entire family album discussing every single photo inside. Most wants to see 2-3 particularly cute pictures, and then move on.

    The trick isn't to describe all that there is. The trick is to describe just a handful of details, a cluster of little gems, that perfectly convey the mood of the place, of the scene, and of how the character perceives the place. I don't remember who said it now, but I read it on this forum - someone said, "It's better to highlight one or two details worth remembering, than to throw in all 10 pieces of detail that your reader will promptly forget." (I wanna say it was @jannert who said this - was it you?)

    Don't waste words and your reader's time - make what you tell them really count. If 2 pieces of detail basically say the same thing, then choose only 1 - the more powerful one - and delete the other. Likewise, if there's a piece of detail worth noting, sometimes it's better to spend 2-3 sentences on it at the expense of saying more about something else.

    The thing with describing journeys is this - 90% of the time it's really rather dull. I'm sorry to say this, but in my reading experience, it's all too often that I find writers wasting pages and pages on describing the land as the characters travel as an excuse for infodumping on the land's history and backstory etc (usually YA fantasy, and usually in a series!) and really, your readers are smarter than you think. They'll see it for the filler that it is, skip ahead, and get on with reading the story. Long, meandering pages of detail without plot are usually only forgiven if it's exquisitely written, and even then only within certain genres. That, or you gotta be an accepted classic like Dickens or Tolkien. I still haven't read either precisely because I don't want that sorta detail.
     
  22. Mckk
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    Mckk Moderator Staff Supporter Contributor

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    Additionally, it sounds like you might be afraid to write more than just descriptions cus you seem to think you're not very good at the rest of it. Practise makes perfect - don't be afraid :) While of course it is better that every character has a very distinct voice, the truth is very few writers achieve this and they're still published, so I wouldn't lose any sleep over it. Yes, something to improve on, but it's not going to kill your writing. The moment you attach a name to the character who's speaking, your readers will be visualising a particular character anyway.

    What I'm saying is, don't become paralysed because somehow you feel like you've got to be perfect in every aspect before you can feel good and confident about writing it :) Go for it, do your best, learn along the way!

    And have fun :cheerleader:Don't forget to have fun!
     
  23. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, t'was me! :) Only I said 8 pieces of detail, not 10! Ha ha!
     
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  24. JEH
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    Thanks again for all your messages. What I meant with the dialogue aspect, wasn't that I didn't intend to say who said what, but they I wanted to make sure that each character had their own way of talking otherwise every speaker may end up wording things in the same way. I don't really have much confidence lol, but for now I shall write crap and later try and make it feasible
     
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  25. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    More detail = slower pace. Therefore, you can modulate pace by how much derail you provide. Besides, it makes sense. You characters have the luxury of taking in all those details only when things are developing relatively slowly.
     

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