Jump to content

Attention to Detail


Recommended Posts

I am impressed by the superb attention to and freshness of detail in stories like Lem--currently in progress in the young friends part of Nifty--and all of Rock Lane Cooper's stories (at crvboy.org and elsewhere). An example from Lem: "Dane's in his bed watching TV. His bed sits a bit higher than mine, like a bunk bed, and it leans against the other wall" The first sentence is sufficient to keep the story going; the second sentence adds several levels of richness. I like it.

In teaching about how to compose music, Bach outlined three steps: 1) set the themes; 2) elaborate on the themes, and 3) provide embellishment and ornamentation. If writing were like composing, the detail would be added at th end.

As an author working through the draft of Palouse, I have a technical question of authors who put a lot of detail in their work. [The answers may differ for each writer]:

The question is: Do you (generally) write your story with the addition of (substantial) detail in the early stages or do you come back closer to the end and add the details as ornamentation as part of the closing process, so to speak?

Link to comment
The question is: Do you (generally) write your story with the addition of (substantial) detail in the early stages or do you come back closer to the end and add the details as ornamentation as part of the closing process, so to speak?

I'm a new writer, so don't take what I do as anything more than what I do.

I like to get the story out first. Then when I go back through it, I look at how it sounds, what pictures I have in my mind and add detail to make it clear what I want the reader to also see. Each time I go through it (and there are many), I'm fine tuning it, adding more detail as needed.

Link to comment

A very interesting question.

My answer is, I always mean to go back and add more detail, more description, more mood. And I usually do just a very little bit of this, not nearly what I intended. There are reasons for this.

When I finish a story, there's this urge to get it posted. It's an urge that's strong enough to rush the final process. And it detracts from adding too much extraneous palaver. Patience may be a virtue, but it's not one of mine.

Also, there's an internal fight I wage between keeping the kernel of the story somewhat pure, so the forward motion is kept intact, and adding a lot of nonessential stuff to bring more color to the characters and scene. The more ornamentation you add, the more obese a story can become. The distinction between adding color that enhances and filler that merely lengthens is very fine indeed. And I usually am pretty happy with what I have when I'm done; superfluous detail often simply seems distracting.

But I do add. I edit everything I write many times. I hate typos and mistakes. When I edit, I must admit I change wordings and phrases and such inveterately. I mostly do it for clarity, because I want readers to see and feel what I do in a scene and so not be distracted by awkward language, but I will add some color, too, if I think it's appropriate.

I'll be looking forward to how others answer this question. I imagine in this, like most everything with writing, there will be similarities and great differences.

We all do it our own way, to a large extent.


Link to comment

I write until I'm done. My editors will send stuff back with "needs more detail here" and then I put it in. I'm trying to get my story and message out there. Clean up is secondary. If the story is shite, the content is irrelevant. It's a delicate balance to keep from boring your reader with too much detail and from scaring him off with a spartan boring tale.

I work on 2 to 3 chapters at a time.

There is NO RIGHT ANSWER to this question.

Link to comment
I...There is NO RIGHT ANSWER to this question...

Of course there's not. The answer is that we write our own way. How we accomplish detail is...just the way we write, period. It's what we want the reader is see.

Shit, who am I to be giving you advice?

Link to comment

I've gone through phases of going back to embellish and detail, but I'm currently going through a minimalistic phase where I try to keep the writing down to what I feel is needed, and just put in enough other detail to give the user's imagination something to build on. I currently don't go back and rework on something unless I'm having a case of mild writer's block, in which case reviewing and revising existing stuff keeps me occupied.

Link to comment

Detail can be overdone. How do I define overdone? When it becomes a drag on the storyline and leaves nothing to the readers imagination. The ability to escape into my imagination is one of the reasons I read sci-fi/fantasy

Hi, my name is John, and I'm 6'4" tall with blond hair, purple eyes, and a 12 inch....you know

This is clearly detail that doesn't need to be included...at least in that fashion. I've also read books where the descriptive detail became so overwhelming I never finished the story. Like all things, there's a fine line to be trod between enough and too much/too little.


Link to comment
...try to keep the writing down to what I feel is needed, and just put in enough other detail to give the user's imagination something to build on.

When a writer of the calibre of Graeme explains how he works the rest of us pay close attention.

I try to do the same. When I want to set the scene I will occasionally describe the rolling hillsides or whatever, but generally I just tell the story, and only describe my characters' physical attributes as those things come up naturally in the story, or are necessary for the story to make sense. If it's true that radio is better than television because the pictures are clearer, that's because the listeners exercise their imagination, and that's also true of written stories. People like to use their imagination. That's why, when a book is adapted for the television, viewers write in complaining that the characters weren't how they'd imagined them.

My two penn'orth.

Link to comment

And as usual, Bruin, your two penn'orth is actually worth twenty dollars.

But let me add something to this. You guys are sometimes right when you say spare writing is best. You're sometimes wrong, too.

The detail, the description, the adjectives should fit the story. If you have cars zooming around a racetrack at 120 mph, occasionally scraping each other, the steering wheels vibrating and taking muscle to hold steady, the suspensions about to break lose, the roar of the crowd lost in the roar of the engines, a corner coming up and Jed not sure he can hold the car, the back tires starting to lose their grip, and Donny mere inches away, grinning his hateful grin at Jed, vengeance in his eyes, then turning into Jed, nudging him, and Jed's car beginning to spin, the wall looming, Jed's heart racing and fear shattering his focus, you don't want to be interspersing the color of the car, the smell of racing fuel, the sounds of birds chirping on the light stanchions, the color of Donny's hair or eyes or what kind of racing outfit he's wearing. These details intrude and muddy up the vision the reader is having.

But, if the scene depends on the atmosphere of a soft summer's evening, the sunset colors and the feel of the breeze and the sounds of coming night all conspire to put the reader on that back porch, and well-wrought adjectives made that all real, and bring the reader right where you want him.

I just finished a story where I put some pretty descriptive words together making a meadow real and alive in the summer sun. But I didn't do it to display my meadow-ese. I did it because I was comparing the life of the meadow to the darkness of a woods. The sunnier and happier I could make the meadow, the darker and more severe I could make the woods by comparison. And to do this I used a lot of description.

If there are reasons for using description, then use it. If the pace and feel of the scene demand stark bareness, do that, too. Use the amount of description that makes the scene do what you want it to do.


Link to comment
Use the amount of description that makes the scene do what you want it to do.

In full agreement with you, Cole.

It occurs to me that one well-known author who got this spectacularly wrong is Ian Fleming. You know the sort of thing:

'Bond felt the well-balanced weight of his firearm in its tooled leather holster under his arm. A Walther PPK, not the recent model with the unreliable firing pin, the original model made before the factory was taken over by Siemens Bosch. Imperceptibly, without disturbing the way his Saville Row suit hung on his broad shoulders, he reached in and released the safety catch, taking the opportunity to finger the polished rosewood grip, checking that it was not even slightly moist, having accompanied him as he climbed the outside of the skyscraper, up forty two flights if you include the service floor. Dry as a bone. Not for the first time he had cause to thank his SURE anti-perspirant. He didn't know how soon he would need to use the handgun, and the lack of moisture under his arm could actually save his life. It's not often you can say a deodorant saves lives. Olfactory nerves, maybe, but lives? No.'

I made that up, but I'm sure his writing is full of that stuff!

Link to comment
I made that up, but I'm sure his writing is full of that stuff!

I wish to defend Mr. Fleming. Quite frankly he's not a great author, but he's a good, serviceable author. And he made a character for the ages. Everyone, and I mean, everyone knows James Bond. So no matter what anyone thinks, it worked.

Honestly, he writes a bit dry but it's not bad. I read most of his oeuvre and liked it okay. Some were quite better than others.

Link to comment
I wish to defend Mr. Fleming. ...he's a good, serviceable author.

Yes I agree, but his habit of describing boy's toys in minute geeky detail panders to the train spotter in his readers and puts the rest of us off. I will admit to liking his books, much better than the films, and having read them as a teenager when I was susceptible myself to minutiae of that sort.

Link to comment

I also want to add that what I said is what I do. I never said it was the way things should be done.

Different authors have different styles. Some authors have very flowery writing styles, with lots of descriptions scattered through. Stephen Donaldson is an example of this -- right at the heavy end of description. He still has some great stories, though. They're very rich. Other authors are positively spartan in their writing. Neither extreme is right or wrong -- it depends on what they are doing.

Having both styles in the same story is probably a mistake, but even there I can see times it could be done for effect.

I have a friend for whom I read advance copies, and his writing is heavier on description than mine. There's nothing wrong with that -- that's what he does and that's the way he writes. As long as he is still telling a story that captures the imagination, I don't see a problem.

Link to comment

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
  • Create New...