Details, details, details...and then BAM!
December 28, 2012 1:11 PM   Subscribe

As a reader of fiction (especially if you're a devotee of speculative fiction), how much do you like detailed descriptions and/or lists as part of the story? What if the story switches between detail and expediency?

Feel free to answer the question as asked or explore any of the expanded pondering for more targeted responses.

In moving mental obstacles out of the way of a story I've been writing for a long time, I've realised that some of what I need involves getting outside of my head more [previously: 1, 2]. In this (hopefully last) question of the series, I crave input on how much detail is actually comfortable for readers AND if my custom of switching between approaches is potentially discombobulating.

One of my tendencies when writing is to be extremely detailed, as I want to build a vibrant, tangible impression of what is being encountered or experienced. But I don't use this inexorably - there are parts where flow of events would be hideously stymied and I switch to a more action-oriented, fill-in-the-blanks-yourself style.

Examples: I find the lists in Brian Jacques's Redwall books endearing and sometimes amusing. I originally liked the incredible details in Ill-Made Mute by Cecilia Dart-Thornton, but she seemed to abandon the more artful approach to it in the jump to the other books and it became tiresome. Martha Wells used description to great advantaqe in The Bone Palace. Most know Bradbury's knack for loving and chilling details, and those are certainly part of my concept of the iconic ideal.

But getting through action and complex exchanges seems weighed down by such detail, so I move away from that. Maybe not so far as Hemingway, but certainly along the lines of Jack London. Thereabouts, anyway.

To boil it down:
Details/lists - like or dislike? Is there an ideal that encapsulates your preference? Are there exceptions to your personal rules?

Mixing it up to further the story - preferable or disorienting? Is there anyone who does this particularly well? Especially poorly?

Thanks to bongo_x for the comment that helped me summarise!
posted by batmonkey to Writing & Language (12 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I am perhaps not a typical reader (I do read an awful lot of books), but I'll answer from my perspective.

I read all the Redwall books, and skipped pretty much all the singing and poetry. I can't recall "lists" in particular, but chances are I would have skipped them. In general, I skim over a lot of description unless its particularly interesting - so I'll read in detail stuff about a newly discovered monster or something integral to the plot, but I'll only skim through a 2 page long description of countryside, to pick out the salient points. That's not to say you shouldn't put it in if you like it, I bet a lot of people do read and appreciate descriptive passages. I'm just not one of them. A book where *everything* is described in detail all the time doesn't sound appealing to me at all.

I think cutting down on description when the action gets going is pretty normal, and I certainly wouldn't mind (see above). I probably wouldn't even notice unless there was an extreme difference. When I'm into a book I don't notice "style" much unless it's jarring and interrupts my immersion in the story.

In short, one data point for "mixing it up is preferable."
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:33 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: To me, detailed descriptions are important for anchoring my sense of place in a story. I've read some authors that seem to dispense with that sort of place-making, and those books do leave me feeling disconnected. And of course, details can be (and ideally are) integral to the action.

I haven't read any of the authors you mentioned. I did read Reamde not long ago, and that had a mix between discursive scene-setting and fast-paced action (sort of like Quentin Tarantino uses in his movies). I thought it worked great.
posted by adamrice at 1:50 PM on December 28, 2012

Best answer: I'm a big fan of both, honestly, but much as I love books with excessive description and detail, they're more work to read through; I'm reading Gene Wolfe's deservedly lauded "Book of the New Sun" quartet right now, and I'm pausing to look up unfamiliar words on Google approximately once per page to ensure that I'm picturing the correct architectural and sartorial embellishments in my mind as I read through the text (sabretache! gonfalon! vincula!), whereas ordinarily I do this about once per book, at most.

Of course, not everyone reads like I do, and even in an extreme case like Wolfe's, you can still pick up nearly everything you need (maybe not "arctother") from context alone.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:51 PM on December 28, 2012

Best answer: Samuel Delany (a writer of speculative fiction!) has some essays about writing which you might find helpful. Here is an interview with him in which he talks about "new words" as generating images in science fiction. He also wrote an essay about his novel Triton in which he talks about worldbuilding via new words and new images, expanding on the famous examples of "her world exploded" and "the door dilated". His work on writing generally is interesting and useful.

I don't mind lists, if by lists you mean long paragraphs of detailed description. But I prefer puzzles, "new words", etc. So I much prefer to encounter things like the self-image booths in Triton which suggest a great deal about the society without info-dumping it. Or books where there will be words or new devices used without too much explanation so that the reader has to infer.

I guess my favorite examples of world building are these:

1. Triton and Dhalgren, by Delany - both books where small patches of very sharp, clear description suggest much
2. Always Coming Home by LeGuin - the paradigmatic "list" book, an experiment in form
3. The Female Man by Joanna Russ (caution! some very foolish writing in one section which reads as transphobic through sheer ignorance of actual trans women and for which Russ later apologized) - "stories within the story" build a clear picture of Whileaway
4. Red Mars and the Three Californias books by Kim Stanley Robinson, in which there's controlled use of "lists" and infodumps.
posted by Frowner at 2:00 PM on December 28, 2012

Best answer: (Of course, not everyone reads like I do, and even in an extreme case like Wolfe's, you can still pick up nearly everything you need (maybe not "arctother") from context alone.

I tend to read BOTNS as a "puzzle" book, where the words act as estrangement devices - it's not too important to me to know exactly what an arctother looks like and indeed I'd rather puzzle it out from context.)
posted by Frowner at 2:02 PM on December 28, 2012

Response by poster: May or may not help future answerers: I view Samuel R. Delany as an almost perfect writer, as even his flaws are interesting. He does short and long equally well, in my opinion. His words on writing are actually part of what daunted me in the early phases of getting this together, along with those of several other famously talented and thoughtful writers intending to help fools like me. Ursula K. LeGuin, too, yes, absolutely. And many others, of course.

Part of the impetus for asking other readers is to move into more distributed viewpoints and away from the rarefied instructions of the High Holies.*

* okay, that's hyperbole...but not by much; sure, these writers are just people, but they are people who organised their thoughts and marshalled their creativity and were not too frightened to put words to paper and inflict themselves upon others. superheroes! so I need to get back down to Earth on this so to speak.
posted by batmonkey at 2:14 PM on December 28, 2012

Best answer: Who is your speaker?

I've found that some writers seem to lack control in regards to the level of detail in their descriptions--this happens often with both literary and speculative writers. It sounds like you're striking a decent balance, but I think more important is deciding your narrative voice and identity, which will inform the level and detail and, more what details you include. This is true not just for first person prose (though it's especially true for first person prose--nothing is more jarring than a narrator who is focused on his or her environment when important emotional climaxes are reached), but for third as well. Every third-person POV has an identity, whether it's "me" or "god" or "the court historian," and each of these speakers will demand a different appropriate level of detail.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:23 PM on December 28, 2012

Best answer: And, personally, I'm like stillnocturnal: prone to skimming if I think that the author is just waxing poetic for no reason. Setting is important, but I hate when characters or narration is used to just passively describe scenery with no connection to plot. Like they say in Wonderboys:
And even though your book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's... it's at times... it's... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all. And I was just wondering if it might not be different if... if when you wrote you weren't always... under the influence.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:27 PM on December 28, 2012 [1 favorite]

As a fellow novelist, I found that learning about Scene and Sequel helped a great deal in finding the balance between moving quickly (Scene) and slowing things down a bit (Sequel). Here's a great starter article on it.

I would recommend Jack Bickham's Writing Novels That Sell for a more indepth look. True, he also wrote another book later called "Scene and Sequel", but I found this one MUCH better at explaining his thought process that he learned from Dwight Swain.
posted by THAT William Mize at 3:03 PM on December 28, 2012

I think it totally totally depends. For me it's like asking "Do you like novels?" If it's good, yes. If it's bad, no. (On the other hand, dream sequences make me want to tear my eyes out and I skim swiftly over them even in my favorite authors.)
posted by threeants at 3:38 PM on December 28, 2012

I like detail when it helps flesh out a setting, but a good turn of phrase can be more evocative than a paragraph. However, I'm not sure polling potential readers is the best way to settle on stylistic choices unless it helps you decide what you really like. Write a book that you like and if it's any good, there are enough people to like it no matter whether you go heavy on descriptions or not.
posted by ersatz at 6:00 AM on December 31, 2012

Response by poster: I appreciate very much those who did answer - thanks tons!

I do get that the very best cure is to write and write and write and go from there, I do. On this particular thing, though, I really needed to get out of my own head
and get a feel for how other people experience this stuff. It might not work for others, but it definitely works for me.

Thanks again!
posted by batmonkey at 10:06 AM on December 31, 2012

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