Too Much or Too Little - An Analysis of Detail and Clarity


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I love to read and like to try out new authors. I do have a few favourites whose books I tend to buy whenever a new one has been published. Most of the time, I will enjoy these new releases. But sometimes I'll find myself unable to get into the story.

This is okay, and understandable. I think that every writer tries out new things, and will learn and grow and experiment. There are books by Stephen King that I don't really like, and some I've never finished reading, even after several attempts. But I do think he's a great author. The same with Anne Rice, and even Terry Pratchett.

The reasons for not being able to get into a book vary, but the one I will discuss in this article is the matter of description – too much or too little.

There's a certain book by one of my favourite authors that gave me trouble. I usually love her novels, but I struggled with this particular one because her detailed descriptions were so, well, detailed and lengthy that I found myself skipping entire pages just to check where and when the story actually continued. There's a whole section in that book explaining the intricacies of iconic egg painting, and whilst I am sure that that is extremely interesting to some, I wanted to know what was going to happen next.

Too much detail can cause me to skip pages, but it's all the more difficult to get the feel of a book and get hooked when it occurs at the very beginning. I have nothing against some detail that places us in a particular setting, but I do not need five or seven pages of detailed description before I'm actually introduced to a character and/or get a hint of what the story is all about.

In my experience, it's best to learn bits and pieces about, for example, the setting, where and when it's relevant. I, as the reader, can fill in the details myself and paint a picture in my mind when the basics have been provided.

On the other hand, there have been stories that left me guessing about details that I wanted to know. I've been known to flick back through a book to see if I missed something, which is not great for a smooth read either.

For example, I like to know the age, or at least approximate age, of the main characters, and to have a rough idea about their looks. This helps me visualise them and play their little part in the cinema of my mind.

I like to learn these details as the story progresses, though preferably near the beginning of the novel. Though I do not like it when characters are introduced like this:

Jenny was a 20-year-old woman. She had long, blonde hair, blue eyes, was of medium built and was wearing (etc. . . ). She was talking to her best friend Melissa, who was 20 years old as well, had shoulder-length brown hair. . . and so on.

Another one I do not really like is the “mirror scene” on the first couple of pages - Jenny looks in the mirror and what she sees is. . .

I think the best way to illustrate my ideas on too much and too little description is to give a couple of brief examples. Picture our hero, Michael, being chased by a bad guy of your choosing. It is a tense scene. Ahead is a big building. Michael is running towards it and dashes inside. . .

In situation A, we are then treated to a detailed description of the building, what it was used for since it was built, perhaps a few more personal notes about its previous owners and how it came to be in the state of decline it is in today. By the time the bad guy arrives, the scene would not feel quite so tense any more.

In situation B, Michael dashes inside, looks around him and, say, almost falls into the big vat of boiling liquid on the floor below but luckily survives. How he manages to almost fall into the big vat when the big vat is a floor below is not really explained, nor are we given any indication of his reactions to almost landing in it.

A balance would be nice. Some idea of what the building is like, enough to set the scene. Insight into how our hero is experiencing the scene we are reading is crucial. A skilled author will give us enough to keep reading and to have us yearning to find out what happens next.

Isn't that far better than feeling we missed something, or to have to skip entire pages to see what happens when the story finally continues?

If you are writing a novel, or a story, it could be worthwhile to ponder these matters. Have a read of your work, and perhaps ask the opinions of friends. Are there parts of your story that do not hold a reader's attention as much as they could? Are you tempted to skip paragraphs? Are there situations that are unclear? If so, a tiny bit of editing could do wonders, without affecting the story as a whole.

If you manage to keep your readers hooked, congratulations! I am sure they will return to your works again and again.

Kit Marsters is an author on www.Writing.Com which is a site for Writers .


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