The devil’s in too much detail.

     On several different occasions in my life, I’ve attempted something that, to this day, frightens me: I’ve attempted to read fantasy fiction.

     It’s…not working out. The only one I’ve ever made it through is “The Fellowship of the Ring,” and I only did that because I was in the Air Force and guarding a plane for twelve hours a night.

     Fantasy has a lot that appeals to me. Swords, beautiful women, magic, epic battles; on paper (heh), I should be a big fan. However, I just can’t get past the fact that every novel I’ve attempted to read seems to be 50,000 words of story crammed into 120,000 words of book. The biggest reason for this has got to be the nearly endless description. My guess is that, because the fantasy author has created a world, he/she feels the need to describe it. In painful detail. At every opportunity. I don’t mind description, as long as it’s folded into the story and happens generically. When pages upon pages are dumped in front of me, I switch off.

     I have no idea if that has impacted my style at all, but I’m completely the other way. I eschew physical description unless it adds something to the story. If a male character is supposed to be physically imposing and he uses that to his advantage, I’ll say so. If a female character is, in my mind, a beautiful brunette…I’ll probably never tell you. Why? Because it’s not important, and takes up space that could be used to further the story. I will, however, tell you if she uses her exceptional looks to get close enough to an unsuspecting guard to knock him out.

     The same goes for the environment. I’ll tell you a few details to set the scene, and then get on with it. Everyone knows what a hospital, or playground, or open field looks like, so I don’t feel the need to describe it in great detail. Who knows…maybe the park in my story looks just like the one you remember best.

     The other reason I avoid extensive description is a simple matter of identifying with the reader. For example, if I keep my female lead’s description vague, my female readers will be free to imagine that she looks like them, has the same interests, etc, and that helps them get lost in a story. On the other hand, if I pull a Dan Brown and describe her as a breathtakingly gorgeous statuesque blonds whose auburn hair and long legs blahblahblah…that’s a constant reminder that the reader (the ones who aren’t statuesque blondes, anyway) is merely an observer. Everyone knows about author surrogates; should we ignore the importance of a reader surrogate?

     What do you think? Does the amount of physical description in a book affect how much you enjoy it?

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One thought on “The devil’s in too much detail.

  1. Great post, and I thoroughly agree. I personally use two approaches to description in my stories, both of which you hinted at in your article.

    The first is “less is more.” A very minimalist approach to description can still generate an involving picture in the reader’s mind, because the brain fills in the details. I get a picture of the character in my mind just based on their personality and actions; I don’t need the author to spell it out for me. I actually find I can “get into” minimalist stories more; something about the clean-cut prose latches onto my subconscious, so I feel like I’m “experiencing” the story rather than just “observing it.” Stories with a lot of description can drag, as you mentioned.

    My style tends towards the minimalist end, partly because I’m a screenwriter. In scripts, you can’t stand around and describe. You can sneak a few details into the action and then leave the rest up to suggestion. I was actually worried that the writing style of my fantasy novels was too snappy – too many short sentences, as opposed to the gently paced description of your average fantasy novel. I think perhaps I shouldn’t be concerned.

    On the other hand, I think it’s important to remember that you can work a lot of evocative description into a story if you blend it into the narrative well. Don’t underestimate the power of specific nouns, concrete verbs, and a few selective qualifiers. You can paint a big image with only a few words. Again, that’s another tactic screenwriting will teach you.

    Thanks for the great post!

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