Authorial Intrusion: The Details

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.

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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!

 

 

 

 

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30 comments

  1. I’m with you, Jackie. Less is more. The details need to reveal key elements–including a character’s state of mind and emotions. I always think of that stunning passage from The Great Gatsby when Fitzgerald describes Daisy and Jordan in Gatsby’s living room with the wind gusting through the open doors. It reveals so much about the character’s and Nick’s state of mind. My writing credo is: too much detail is deadly and can stop a reader from turning the page. Therefore, it should be avoided at all costs!

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    1. Oh, that’s a terrific example, Patti! I remember that scene in Gatsby. It was so vivid to me precisely because Nick focuses on just the details that stood out to him.

      Another scene in Gatsby that was so memorable (I mean, there are many such scenes!) was Fitzgerald’s description of the ashes. I can still picture that wasteland between the mansions of West Egg and the skyscrapers of Manhattan.

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      1. I didn’t know that, Patti! That must have been exciting and rewarding. I saw the mention in your post. I used to teach at College of New Rochelle in their Harlem campus. Talk about a commute! What subjects did you teach?

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  2. Including the small details works for me if they are unusual details, historical details, or, as you say, important for character development. But otherwise, it’s best to assume the reader knows how to, say, open a modern day door. Now, if it’s the door to a medieval dungeon, and needs to have a heavy bar lifted, then maybe a lock that rattles and clanks unbolted, then those should be seen and heard. Or maybe leaving requires suiting up in a spacesuit and going through a hissing airlock. That’s interesting. But maybe only the first time the astronaut does it. (I just watched The Martian – can you tell?) 😉

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    1. Great point, Cynthia! I Those kinds of details envelope you and ground you in the world of the story. I definitely want to hear that dungeon door open!

      It must be difficult to temper the desire to explain everything for fantasy or sci-fi writers who have to create new worlds. How did you like The Martian? In a rare twist, I liked the movie more than the book.

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      1. Wait a minute! I thought Matt only had eyes for me. 😉
        I found the movie to be even more suspenseful than the book. I enjoyed the book, but it had a lot of super technical details that went right over my head. I’m sure sci-fi fans loved all the nitty-gritty.

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    1. I try to explain this to my students — why write the description if readers are going to skip it? Keep to the interesting essentials so the reader remains involved and excited. Mailman’s shoes are probably not interesting essentials, unless the mailman has dreams of becoming a cobbler! 🙂

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  3. I don’t recall where, but I once read an article about “women’s fiction” writers being asked by publishers to include sensory details deemed appealing to women by marketing data. They wanted lingering descriptions of interior decor, details about the precise shades and luxurious textures of clothing, and menu-worthy descriptions of meals to make the mouth water. Whether or not these revealed much about characters, they wanted some data-driven notion of what women like to elicit fond feelings for the story.

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    1. That is so interesting, Karen! I suppose there is a lot of market-driven analysis of what readers want in particular genres, especially mainstream fiction. Know your audience is a good motto. I wonder what the focus groups have to say about 50 Shades of Grey. 😛

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    1. I agree with you there. For me, all those mundane details of getting from point A to point B just weighs down the story. I’d much rather have one or two important details and use my imagination for the rest. That’s why I’m reading, after all!

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  4. I’m a masochist who, back in the day when I read books, read the filler details and found them punishing. This is probably why most of my reading now is reduced to ingredient labels. As you know, I attend plays regularly. I hate plays where I’m told action as opposed to seeing it unfold on the stage, but one talky play that works beautifully is “The Humans” that has transferred from off-Broadway to Broadway. Afterward, Milton said, “Not one wasted word.” This is one of the best new plays we’ve seen this season. It’s funny, it’s thoughtful, it’s relatable and it’s 90 highly entertaining minutes with no intermission. You could see it and be home in time to walk Reggie.

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      1. Milton and I are seeing Streetcar on 6/4. When are you going? We have to talk privately. You’ve got to visit my new sanctum sanctorum. Unfortunately, dogs are not allowed, but if you put Reggie in a cat suit, maybe we could sneak him in. On second thought, that might offend his canine pride.

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  5. Jackie, I am glad I am not alone in the details camp. I tend to skim passages overwrought with details. I prefer leaner writing and I am not completely against detail – if it moves the story forward. Otherwise it comes across as purple prose or the author is in love with his or her own voice.

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    1. That’s a good way to putting it, Rudri. I wonder if authors who often write this level of detail feel they need to explain. Maybe they want to be sure the reader knows exactly what the character is wearing or exactly what the character is doing at all times. But it ends up being tedious rather than informative. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. I enjoy setting too, especially unique details that really define a place. No one can describe fog better than Dickens. 🙂

      Speaking of eating, have you read any MFK Fisher? She wrote essays, but if you like lush descriptions of food, she’s terrific!

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  6. Yes to all this, Jackie! I remember when a writing teacher explained the need for this kind of excessive detail omission, it felt like a gift. I was psyched not to deal with the mundane. Nowadays I watch myself and make sure to cut out any unnecessary description that sneaks in.

    Liked by 1 person

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