Wednesday, September 3, 2008

How Much Detail?

The 3 day novelists from TextFIGHT brought up a question in Monday's post comments that I wanted to poke at further, because it seems to be one of the key questions for writing today: how much detail do you dispense and when?

They were talking about this in the context of their characters, but the same problem presents itself in other kinds of writing too. It's a question anytime you're an expert on something and want to write for people who don't know as much about the subject as you do.

How do you figure out how to include just the right number of details, and which ones your audience will be interested in? I realized awhile back that this is why I was so intrigued in the writing of the TV series West Wing--at the time I started watching, I was profoundly ignorant of and disinterested in the very detailed subject matter it portrayed, and yet it kept me interested and taught me just enough about the subject matter to get me by in the narrative. If I could find that balance myself...

This seems to be to be an even harder question to answer today than it used to be, when, as they point out over at Good Letters in the commentary on the excellent post "Maybe Google Isn't Making Us Stupid", the taste of readership seems to be undergoing a sea change, though it's unclear to me exactly what kind of sea change. On one hand, people don't read long pieces anymore so much, we're told. But on the other hand, they'll spend hours reading all the info they can find on a subject they're interested in, wanting more and more detail. By the same token, many are addicted to watching or reading the same stories over and over again, or looking for more installments to a series to get more info.

It's hard, in this climate, to know where to stop. How to write so that people want to get to that "wanting more" point, and then how to keep them happy while you're trying to engage those who also want less and are easily distracted? Finding that balance sometimes gets harder now that I'm an academic that spends a lot of time writing for academics, who are also similarly intrigued by questions that don't so much interest the general populace. But what is the general populace with so many people interested in different niche topics?

I don't know. I only know that I find test readers to be invaluable in giving me feedback on what's interesting and adequately-explained and what's not.

Anyone have thoughts on any of this?


RyanStates said...

I wish I had any useful insight. I'm torn as hell on the issue. There is a school that says you need to give your readers every piece of information they need to understand your story.

On the other hand, a giant amount of my own education came from my own interest in the stories I read. If a character mentioned something in passing, or if the author used a term I didn't understand, then I was filled with a need to find out.

It opened up whole areas of the world to me, that self-directed research. What's more, I think it's good.

In my 3 Day, Harry makes regular mention of his Quaker upbringing and uses terms they use. I don't explain these. He wouldn't. He knows full well what they mean. For him, or for me, to suddenly give a history of the faith and its practices would be a shift out of the story, and into lecturing.

I have always hated that when authors did that.

Yet, I also know that some of his actions and decisions have more impact in light of his faith, and less so when you don't know exactly why he's made them.

For my part, I sometimes like those moments when I don't really understand every part of the way a character's mind works. Some hate that.

Me, I don't know what the hell is the right way to go.

Maybe there isn't even one.

Deborah Leiter said...

Yeah, I think there's a balance, but I don't always know where it is, particularly in fiction.

I like what James Wood said in his How Fiction Works: "I think that novels tend to fail not when the characters are not vivid or deep enough, but when the novel in question has failed to teach us how to adapt to its conventions, has failed to manage a specific hunger for its own characters, its own reality level. " (p. 120).

I think this applies not just to characters, but also to the worlds we create, and if so, it takes the weight off a bit--we get to create our own reality levels within each piece. The trick, I think, is to create scenes and actions and characters that do double-duty--creating and sustaining the dream of the story while sneaking in details about the characters' world that teach you stuff about their spheres of experience and knowledge at the same time.

It's a fine art, it is. :) Chaim Potok is amazing at it, as is J. K. Rowling, actually.

RyanStates said...

It's pretty fashionable to bash on Ms. Rowling and her writing, but you're absolutely right. She has that balance dead on correct.

I wonder if it's easier to achieve that balance in a thoroughly imagined world? I wonder if that is part of the appeal of created worlds.


Deborah Leiter said...

I think it's the reason it's so hard to fully render fully imagined worlds without getting overly dull about all the details the author is so intrigued by. In more "everyday"-type worlds, you can leave more things unsaid, or at least undefined...

I've always liked Ms. Rowling. Her prose isn't as stylistically beautiful as, say, Fredrick Buechner or Alice Munro, but it does what it sets out to do very well, which is something every writer should be proud to do: keep the reader delighted to be in the world of her novels and have trouble setting them down.