Thursday, April 30, 2009


Two versions of an old proverb: "God is in the details" and "The devil is in the details." I've heard both, and both bear applicability to the class I taught last night at Writers & Books.

We critique two stories each work, Clarion-style. Last night we had the start of a historical fantasy novel and a complete SF short story. One took place in nineteenth-century Europe and the other in high Earth orbit, but the same question arose for each: How much detail is too much? What made this complicated was that readers could not agree. Some liked all the details of Italy as seen on a Grand Tour; some advised, "Cut the travelogue and get back to the story." Some liked the details of the spaceship's propulsion drive; some said, "Too much techno-jargon." This naturally left the poor authors a mite confused.

My own take on this is that no matter you do, it will be wrong, in that you can't satisfy everybody. Leave out details of setting and mechanics and "the story feels thin," with White Room Syndrome (or White Starship Syndrome or White Continent Syndrome). Put in the details and "you slow down too much and sacrifice tension." Like everything else in writing, it's a trade-off. It's also a balancing act, but even if you find a good balance between atmosphere and action, some readers won't like it.

I don't know how these particular authors will revise their pieces. I'll find out when they send me their rewrites. Meanwhile, I struggle with the same question in the book I'm writing now. How much do you want to know about the furnishings of a seventeenth-century rustic kitchen? And if I tell you the family lights that kitchen with tallow candles rather than either wax candles or rushlights, will that help you place them on a socioeconomic scale? Do you know the difference? Should my text explain the difference to you? Who are you anyway, this unknown reader who may pick up this book two or three years from now, assuming it survives the perils of publishing?

All fiction writing is a message sent out in a bottle, with its recipients largely unknown. All we can do is print clearly and seal the bottle as tightly as we can.


TheOFloinn said...

Describe the thumb so well that the reader thinks she has seen the entire hand.

Ken Schneyer said...

Someone or other said that the description, especially from a limited POV, should always be something that means something to the character.

I love writing lush description, but when the story's too long, it's the first thing to go.

Steven Francis Murphy said...

The problem with details, especially historical ones, is that one runs an increasing probability of being wrong if they use too many of them. I remember reading some historical mystery which featured arms smuggling from the United Kingdom to the Confederate States during the Civil War. Set in London, the story may well have had most of the details right, I've never been there.

But I have used, carried and sold reproductions of the Enfield Rifled Musket. The writer had a throw away line about either the bolts or the firing pins being missing. Since the Enfield is a percussion cap musket, I couldn't see why it would need a bolt or firing pin.

In another work by a prominent SF/Fantasy writer who will remain nameless, they featured a humvee with a clutch.

Which was strange, since every humvee I ever encountered was an automatic. Researching it a bit verified that hummers, even the civilian ones, are all automatics.

Thus, unless I am absolutely positively sure of a detail, I will not use it. I'll leave the spot blank. To put in the wrong detail is sure to derail the Reader's trust in the Writer. So I'd rather deal with the white room syndrome.

S. F. Murphy

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