How much detail and description do you want in the book you’re reading? My creative writing students often ask me this. My answer: it depends.
I tell them that the most important criteria is that the narrator (whether in first person or third) needs to be a good guide for the reader. By “good guide” I mean that the narrator should curate the information given to the reader in much the same way that the Louvre might display certain Monet paintings. The rest is up to personal preference, tempered with a healthy dose of expectations for what the reader can absorb.
As a reader, do you want to be brought into a room and receive a run down of every tea cup in the cabinet? I’d argue not, unless perhaps the character is a tea cup collector. Does you need a head-to-toe description of what a character is wearing? Again, I’d argue not. In fact, I would argue that too much of this type of information loses its potency. I’d much rather the narrator focus my attention on one or two important details (Dr. Who’s bow-tie or Mr. Darcy’s morning coat) that define the character, instead of a jumble of words that get lost. For me, less is more.
I’m squarely in the Hemingway camp on this one (but not as far as the McCarthy camp). But maybe you’re in the Diana Gabaldon camp. I understand that her narrator in the Outlander series regales readers with pages and pages of landscape and historical details. My co-worker read one of Gabaldon’s novels in a weekend. When I asked how she managed to finish the 800-page novel in two days, she said, “I skimmed the descriptions until I got to the action.” Hmm.
I recently finished The Lake Shore Limited, by Sue Miller. I really enjoyed the story and the author’s skill in crafting realistic characters who are flawed but likable. But the narrator’s descriptions of characters handling mundane tasks were overkill for me: getting undressed for bed, standard bathroom routines, preparing a meal. The New York Times book review called it “filler detail.”
As he hung up, he was suddenly aware that the house felt chilly. On his way to the kitchen, he stopped and turned the hall thermostat up. He could hear it trigger the switch, then the faraway roar in the basement. Though he wasn’t hungry, he fixed himself dinner. Pasta. Pasta with olive oil and some tarragon he found in the refrigerator and chopped up. He made himself do this.
These details can be significant, if they are significant for the character. In other words, if the character is somehow defined by them, including these banal details might be important. Otherwise, I don’t need (or honestly want) to know that the character picked up his keys, put on his scarf and coat, turned the doorknob, and went outside. I can assume these things. I can use my imagination. But others may feel they are getting to know the character.
What do you think? Do you prefer lots of little details? Or would you rather the narrator leave out small acts of everyday routine?
Have a great weekend, everyone!