A couple of lifetimes ago (the Seventies actually) I was a member of the IPMS (International Plastic Modeler’s Society)…yup, geekdom. I used to build military models and took great pains to add all the little details like rust and dents, shovels and saucepans. I did occasionally put together a muscle car or two, just for a change. It was here I learned more about details.
I was at a public show and contest and received good comments from my peers who knew what work went into my creations far more than the casual onlookers. It was the onlookers however that taught me more about this modeling thing than the other modelers. Along with my tanks and armored cars I displayed my MG-TC that I had spent months building. A ‘civilian’ studied it closely then commented that I’d forgotten to add the dipstick (it was there, he was looking in the wrong place). I figured out that you can add all the details you want but it’s the one thing you don’t add that some $m@rt@$$ will notice.
I’ve just finished the undercounter trim for our new kitchen and I’ve had to layer a shim of thin wood along the top. This required a little bit of filling and sanding to make sure it has a smooth transition. It took an extra couple of hours but it’s up under the counter where it’s not readily visible so why go to those lengths? Because if I don’t another Sm@rt@ss will comment on my shoddiness. Trust me.
What does this have to do with writing?
Details…particularly in narrative…how much is too much?
One of my favorite authors is Sharyn McCrumb and “She Walks These Hills” has continued to be one of my favorite books since I first read it back in the nineties. Sharyn describes a scene right down to the color of flowers nesting in a ditch by a country road. She presents all the intricate details and she does it well. I once read an article (I think it was by Stephen King) that stated it’s best to give the reader only enough information to create a familiar scene in their own mind. His example was an antique shop. You describe the commonalities in every antique shop so that readers can hopefully imagine a real antique shop they visited. Thus, the scene becomes more meaningful and they become more involved. Which approach is right? Are they both right?
I followed the minimalist logic in White Wolf Moon with my description of a bookshop (among other things). Other than the color of the walls (a necessary addition for my Kamloops readers) the store was generic yet everyone seemed to find their way around it easily. I think allowing the reader to create the image in their own mind without having to ‘fit’ my descriptions into place would make for an easier read…but maybe I’m wrong.
I’ve had no complaints with the narrative in the first book yet I find myself being more picky with the second and I’m not sure why.
I still prefer dialogue and character driven stories but this time around I’m more conscious of the setting. Someone suggested that it was because I’m growing and wanting to explore writing more. Dialogue is just talking and while you can say what you want to say in dialogue, normal speech patterns don’t allow for the descriptive adjectives that narration can supply. That makes sense.
A character might say: “Look at that old tractor over there!” But it’s unlikely he’d ever say: “Look at that overly-rusted Massey-Harris tractor in traditional red with dried and cracked grey rubber falling off the yellow rims over there!”
It’s obvious I need a blend of both approaches and perhaps that’s why this new scene-setting attitude seems to have created a rebirth as such. I have found myself going back to some of the first chapters and reconstructing them with narrative descriptions and they do feel better to me.
But now I’m beginning to wonder again…when is enough enough?