Friday, September 25, 2009

Details or No Details, or Basic Details, or Indepth Details

First, hop on over to The Literary Lab and check out the most recent entry by Lady Glamis. It's an excellent post . . . and eerily similar to one I began sketching out with pen and paper on Wednesday, one day before her post appeared in the blogsphere. It's crazy, people, crazy!

Part of the post was about . . . details. Take a gander at the following . . .

But I think one of the most important things to remember when we put that pen to paper, or our fingers to the keys, is that novels are usually not meant to portray real life. They. Are. Fiction. Even if it's a memoir or an autobiography, we don't include the boring details that have nothing to do with the point. There must always be a point. Every scene, every line, every word needs to move the plot and characters forward. If it's something experimental or postmodern, there still needs to be a point, even if nothing happens or moves forward.

I try to remember these things as I'm writing and revising. My readers don't care what the room looks like unless it matters. They don't care what a character looks like unless it matters. No matter how important it may seem to you, or how vivid it is in your mind, please don't put it in unless it accomplishes something productive.

Now, take a look at what I sketched out the other day. It all started with one question, that became a series of questions . . .

At what point do you include character specifics in your manuscript?

That is . . .
  • hair color
  • eye color
  • height
  • weight
  • body type

Do you mention these specifics in . . .

  • great detail?
  • little detail?
  • not at all?

If you do mention these specifics, do you do this in . . .

  • the first paragraph?
  • the second paragraph?
  • the first 250 words? 700 words? 1,000 words?

Is the description . . .

  • cursory?
  • detailed?

Yes, I know, I pretty much asked those questions, but the sketch out on paper was so pretty, I just had to include them again.

Do you only provide the basics about a character's appearance and let the reader fill in the blanks?

The reason I began to write down these questions in the first place, was after a comment was made about the first 1,000 words of one of my manuscripts where I described a character's hair, very, very briefly, just to let the reader know the hair color . . . She laughed again and shook her head, her shoulder length, silver tinged black hair, swaying from side to side. The comment was . . . I don't care right now that mom's hair is dark but silver streaked at this moment... you can work it in later.

When? Where?

Now, for some other very, very important questions . . .

  • Is it important to mention that Character J is holding a margarita in his right hand? Left hand? Both hands?
  • Is this an unnecessary detail?
  • What if someone tosses a chip at said character who is holding the margarita in his right hand, and yet he also effortlessly catches the chip . . . in his right hand?
  • What about a character going to the bathroom? No, not all the gory details, please, I have some sense of decorum. Rather, the mention of hey, i'm distended, i must void! which allows the character to exit the room and the other characters to talk about said character!

Now, since we're talking about details. What about . . .

  • Room Descriptions - do you mention furniture, placement, pictures on wall, colors of things, flat screen tv. Is any of this necessary?
  • Seating in a Restaurant - four characters sitting in a booth, do you need to know that Character A is sitting next to Character C, but across from Character B, and catty-corner to Character D? Would this information be important if Character C was going to gently pat Character A on the head as a sign of affection?

Lastly, to go with Lady Glamis' concept of boring events - what actually constitutes a boring event?

Okay, now lastly, to echo a statement from Lady Glamis . . . does every scene, every line, every word need to move the plot and characters forward?

Nope, wait a minute . . . ooops, totally lost my train of thought on that one. I really, seriously, had a great question. Dang, hate it when that happens! Hmmmmm . . .

Well, unfortunately, my gem of brilliance just disappeared. Everything, so it seems, boils down to a simple question of details, how much, when, where, and possibly never.



Angie Ledbetter said...

I like details, but like a well decorated room, don't want the story overcrowded with too many knicknacks to the point that being in it distracts me. :)

Scott said...

Angie - I agree. I don't usually overcrowd the story with details about rooms, etc., because those are the parts I normally skip over in a book when reading. I do like - for whatever reason - to know what color hair, eyes a character has, height, weight, distinguishing features. Obviously, the 'where' do I insert that information seems to be the problem. Personally, I want to know the basic descriptive details of a character within the first few pages. You?


Marybeth Poppins said...

This is a touchy subject for me. I had one reader mention I give too much detail. I'm not sure where to cut the specifics. I want the reader to visualize what I am seeing.

And I am having that problem with a new project I am working on. I can't figure out when to put in her description. UGH!

Michelle said...

I like to be able to "see" a scene in my head. I'm the first to point out if I read something and can't visualize it. That said, too much detail takes away from the action, so you have to add just enough to make it work.

If you need a detail to show character, like what he's wearing, add it. My MS has a whole thing about sweaters. It takes place in Florida and the grandmother is constantly wearing one and reminding everyone to bring a sweater.

I was at a writing conference a couple of years ago and an author was talking about how people would comment on the way his MC looked. He'd get emails saying this character looked just like a lady's son or commenting on how tall he was. The author thought this was funny because he never specified any physical description in the book. It was all in the imagination of the readers.

catdownunder said...

Prowling in from Nicola's Blogoffee and had to say hello as I see you know one of my cousins!

Scott said...

Marybeth - I'm with you on that. Sometimes, too many details are just too much, other times I want the details. Sometimes, furniture, artwork, books on the bookshelves, etc. show something about a person. I normally try to mention books - author, title, etc. - in some of the descriptive passages. I might even mention that a character has an afghan his/her mother made them when they were little. I guess it's all just a guess - possibly personal instinct - on how much is too much. : )

Michelle - thanks for the tips. Tolkien described Aragorn in such detail in The Lord of the Rings, that when the casting for that character was announced I was like 'wth???'. So, I understand limiting some of the character details and letting the reader fill in the rest. For me, based on the comments, I guess it's all a matter of when versus how much.

Catdownunder - welcome!

Lady Glamis said...

Great post, Scott! Every book seems to be different for me when it comes to details, as well as characters. Like some dishes, some need more salt than others. :)