Not Too Many Details, Please

When I first started out writing it was impressed upon me how important detail was in my narrative.

I want to feel the flowers I want to smell the flowers I want to breath through your pages.

I can’t deny narrative is powerful stuff. Many a novel is saved by the sharp voice of the narrator alone – the whimsical flights of fancy that really has nothing to do with the story being told, but is charming nevertheless. But I cry out whenever I read a story with too much insignificant detail, each action of each character lovingly described until it becomes unbearably stilted.

It’s extremely hard to demonstrate in a post, but let me try my best:

She got up from bed and stared at the unfamiliar room. It was old and grey and smelt of talcum powder. With a rush she realized it reminded her of her childhood.

She decided to go downstairs and make herself a cup of coffee. As she descended the grime on the windows by the staircases caught her eye. I’ll have to clean that up after I complete my paperwork, she told herself, and then she swept into the kitchen.

The kitchen was purple and tiled, and smelt of yesterday’s coffee. She wondered if coffee was all it was ever going to smell of. She flipped a switch and the humming of the coffee maker filled the room, mechanical and annoying.

She wondered how much of this house was of use to her. The cracked purple tile of the kitchen was charming when she first bought the house, but it was now starting to bore her. Her appliances were last decade, but the kitchen was last century. It was mismatched, and not in a good way. She filed away at her fingernails, watching the skin flake away. Must be the detergent I’m using, she thought, I’ll have to switch brands soon.

Okay. I admit there’s nothing wrong about the above extract, but there’s nothing unbelievably great about it either. It doesn’t hook you, it doesn’t give you an insight to how a character works – you can’t possibly tell if ‘she’ is the type of woman to kill her husband in cold blood, or leave her boyfriend in a ditch after poisoning him. Scenes like this are unnecessary, not contributing to the plot of a romance or a thriller or a horror novel. In fact, this scene contributes nothing, and I hate it when an author fills up 5 chapters with this kind of dross. In a novel it’d be inane; in a blook unforgiveable.

Oh, wait. I’ve made a mistake. There is a purpose for scenes like this, really. In short snippets these minute studies of a character’s actions can slow down the pace of a novel, providing a nice contrast to explosive action. Personally I call such scenes wrappers – stuffed between high octane chase scenes or nerve-wrecking revelations.

For instance I might write the above passage after a harrowing night running away from a psychotic boyfriend, caught on a highway and now safe and sound back at home. Or I might write:

A dull thud as the grenade landed in the exact centre of the room, breaking the monotony of the coffee machine.

Ahh. Scenes where nothing happens and detail runs rampant may drive me bonkers, but chucked in at the right places and it works wonders.

Just don’t expect me to read five pages of it online. If words could kill I’d have died long ago. Oh, of what?

Of boredom.

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Category: Learning To Write
  • ming

    i’ve always had a sense that prose would evole into sharper shorter formats.. finding your blog has given me a keen intrest on blooks…now.. where are the good ones.

    i’ve read in ‘exedous’, the novel not bible story…really clear and shord discriptions… no wasted words…

    like 4 sentences compressed into one full haiku of a sentence…

    i’ll be back with atleas an example..

  • Eli James

    Ahh. That would be interesting. Understated prose always brings to mind … Hemingway.

    And I’m still finding the ultimate blook. The emphasis being on the still.


  • Gloria Hildebrandt

    These are interesting comments. I think they reveal how we are evolving as a culture. We have become so used to action, short takes, sound bites, bits and bobs, that we want everything to happen sooner, now, yesterday. The old wonderful classic works of literature are filled with great amounts of detail that draw patient, attentive readers deeply into the story. I think especially men, and may I suggest YOUNG men, want things fast, fast, fast. There are different kinds of readers and writing that is done to satisfy them. I also believe that the medium of the computer, and its limited screen, suits short snappy writing best. No one curls up for a long lovely afternoon of reading a blook online.

  • Eli James

    Yes, you’re absolutely right (to my chargrin). When I first read Lord Of The Rings (aged 15) I sped through, getting the gist of the story and not much else.

    Then I reread it last month … and discovered pools of detail and nuances of speech that change as the setting does. The culture, the songs. The history lessons that characters are prone to let spill, because it is the way of the land.

    I found it beautiful.

    What’s my next reread? Pride and Prejudice. I did no justice to that, skipping entire parts just to find out what happens between Lizzie and Mr Darcy.

  • Gloria Hildebrandt

    Of interest: I see in today’s (May 16) that Orion Books is apparently “slimming down some of the world’s greatest novels.” Ouch.

  • Eli James

    Uh-oh. Tolstoy.

    Tolstoy. How could they do this to him?!

  • CrazyDreamer

    It will perhaps explain (and display) my literary nerdiness and love of fantasy if I note that my mother read me The Lord of the Rings before I was old enough to read.

    She read me The Hobbit first, of course.