Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Beyond Description

One of the things a writer struggles with is how much detail to include in a story.  We really want the reader to understand that great point we just made, the one that opens up the story's world and turns a good book into a great one.  So sometimes we'll go overboard and make the point with a sledgehammer, leaving no item without its own 500 word description.

In other words, we've decided to treat our readers like idiots.

I know a lot of smart people.  I even consider myself to be one on occasion.  And I get either very bored or very pissed when the book I'm reading just won't shut up about something.  I feel like screaming, I'm reading this to use my imagination and make the occasional leap of faith from one point to another.  Stop trying to explain it to me!

Overexplanation(is that even a word?) is, to me, the hallmark of an insecure writer.  We have to assume our readers can get the point we're trying to make, that they understand our symbolism and allusions just fine.  The Shining wouldn't have been anywhere as near a thrilling book if King had included lines like, "Danny opened up the door to room 217.  It was cold and dark, and the spirits filled the room.  There was blood everywhere and Danny could see a light from the bathroom.  When he walked in, a dead body was in the bathtub.  This was the ghost of some long departed guest, and she really wanted to kill Danny so that his psychic abilities would be absorbed by the Overlook."

King got us to understand the supernatural inclinations of the hotel without having to flat out tell us.  He managed to build the suspense without saying, "You should be scared right here!"  In other words, he treated us like adults and let us infer the information for ourselves.

However, while too much detail can kill the mood, complete lack of it can be just as bad and is a sign that either the writer is overconfident, or the writer doesn't understand the craft.  All of us have been guilty of this from time to time.  After all, we know the story and where it's going, so we take a lot of things for granted that maybe we should include.  JK Rowling understood that Harry Potter living as an orphan with his aunt and uncle provided the foundation for his character, but if she didn't go into detail about how the family bullied him or ignored him, we would've missed a vital aspect of his character.

When people say that they just can't write a full length story, it's usually because they're leaving out crucial details.  Then they get mad when the reader doesn't understand it.  Can't you see the obvious? we'll yell.  No, because we haven't provided the detail necessary to allow the very leap we want them to make.

Yeah, yeah, I know - I've talked in circles.  Provide detail, but not too much.  Let readers use their imagination, but don't leave a blank slate.  Blah blah blah.  As cliché as it might be to say, it is important to know how to strike a balance, thus creating a better story.

And that's what separates good writers from talentless hacks.


  1. Your right Russ. It is definitely a tough balance. I found myself going back in to add details because I was skimming. I hope over time I will be able to judge it better on the first shot!

    1. Kevin - I've given up on getting it right in the first shot. I'm not sure anyone is ever that good. Thank God for revision! ;-)