Details

and what to do about them. No, the answer is not always, ‘add more.’

(This post was spawned at the last minute by the sudden coalescence of a bunch of half awake and partially caffeinated thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for about a month. You have been warned.)

Advice for new writers often includes ‘add detail’ and ‘give your characters something to differentiate them from everyone else’. This is not completely wrong; getting what’s in your head onto the page is difficult, and if you don’t include description, the reader can feel like the story is taking place in a vacuum. Worse is when the reader mentally fills in a detail that’s later contradicted. It can be as simple as the character’s hair or eye color that isn’t mentioned until the last chapter, when a character that someone thought was blond turns out to be a redhead. Sometimes the reader moves on without a hitch; other times, it throws them out of the story.

I’m going through that exact problem right now in the time travel WIP. One character is white; the other is black. But they’ve been friends for so long that they don’t notice; the other one is ‘my friend,’ not ‘my black friend,’ or ‘my white friend.’ Since one character’s race becomes slightly more important later on, I need to describe him at some point. I can’t let the reader assume, then pull the rug out from under them later in the story.

How to solve the problem? Good question. I think I’m going to hold off describing them until I get to another character’s POV, which is also their second appearance on the page. They’re strangers to her, and she’s a very visually-oriented person, so noticing things like eye or skin color is less jarring to the reader.

But you can’t always do that; some detail is necessary. How much, and what kinds?

Every story is different. So is every genre, author, and reader, and they combine to form a unique experience. You, the author can’t possibly account for the baggage your readers bring to the story; you will be misunderstood at some point. So it’s difficult to impossible to lay down hard and fast rules for including detail.

I’d start with, ‘don’t let your details contradict each other or reality.’ Yes, I’m looking at you, Rings of Power. Your nomadic tribe isn’t going to bury their dead in an orchard. Orchards are owned by people, who will be very upset at random passersby digging under their valuable trees. Not mention the difficulty of digging through a bunch of tree roots with hand tools.

Ahem. I may be a little salty on the subject. Your readers will be just as salty if you add stupid details without doing any research on whether they make sense or have any connection to reality. In cases like that, it’s better to leave out the detail and let the reader’s imagination fill in the gaps.

Another good rule of thumb- I got this one from watching costume design and cosplay videos- is, ‘make your details mean something. Don’t add detail for the sake of adding detail.’ This is also known as Chekov’s Gun, and while it’s more important in visual media, it’s still a useful tool for writers.

Part of the reason I detested the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series (yes, I’m apparently a freak. What else is new?) is that the author included massive amounts of detail, naming zillions of other planets and alien species, describing their customs and habits, and going on tangents about the history and technology of the universe. And none of it meant anything in the end; 90% of it was detail for the sake of adding detail. I spent most of the series trying to store little bits of information in my head, thinking they’d be important later, and swearing at the book when I got to the end and it was all worthless.

That doesn’t mean every little thing has to be vitally important to the story. Your character’s choice between Coke or Pepsi can be just that, with no deeper meaning. But if you devote a paragraph to explaining why one is better than the other, your readers will expect that to show up again, and will feel less satisfied if it doesn’t.

Thus concludes today’s rant, because, if I don’t stop here, I’m going start in on interior design, the rise of the ‘quirky’ aesthetic, and the difference between real life and photo composition, and oops, there goes the rest of the day.

Your turn- what egregious examples of too much, too little, or just plain wrong details and description have you encountered lately?

19 comments

  1. The “not springing it until the last act” piece on character descriptions can work out for the author, IF they’re doing it specifically to cause the reader to “check your assumptions at the door, sir.” Robert Heinlein was a past master at doing just that, and while he generally didn’t rub your nose in it, he would catch you making unsubstantiated assumptions about a character’s race, color, or creed, in the pursuit of “Folks is folks” and color is an accident of birth.

    1. SPOILERS BELOW FOR VARIOUS WORKS

      I always remember Wings of the Lightning Land by Frederik Pohl, a first person space cowboy story where it turns out very late in the proceedings that the narrator is actually a cowgirl. There’s a Connie Willis novella(…ish? Long enough to make a paperback out of, but tiny compared to her full-length novels) that I took to be a homage, but that one drops the reveal that the two intrepid planetary surveyors are a hetero married couple relatively early on, three or four chapters in.

      There are a lot of “sorry, guys, I just don’t care” descriptive passages in current hard scifi/epic fantasy authors, that I skim right past and don’t even register except as vaguely boring. I really disliked the extended “Rooting for the Empire” sequence in one of the Galaxy’s Edge books, where the authors just start randomly telling the reader at great length how cool the hardware of the outfit overthrowing the corrupt Galactic Republic is, and spelling out all the grudges random officers from that faction have against the Republic leadership. It wasn’t the only reason I stopped following that series (I like Star Wars for the swashbuckling stuff, whereas this was darker and grittier), but it was a contributing factor.

      Best descriptions I read recently were of the titular manor house in Patricia C. Wentworth’s Ladies’ Bane. Author and main POV character are both very negative on quaint, inconvenient old houses, but this one, modernized by a couple of rich Americans who rented the place in the past but were unable to buy it due to personal tragedy, keeps coming off as very appealing in spite of the POV, and the alleged curse on the place ultimately only harms the antagonist. I’ve seen plenty of gothics that ended with “Well, really, the master of the house isn’t so bad, it’s the house and his history with it that make him unpleasant to be around.” Rebecca is kind of like that. This is the first time I’ve seen one where the house itself turns out to be not-so-bad.

      1. I’ll have to dissent a bit on Ladies’ Bane. I feel that had exactly the problem that Blake is describing here: we spend pages and pages learning about the house, and in particular about all of the dark, underground places where one could be trapped. There’s a lot of emphasis on how thick the walls are, and how soundproof. If you scream, you can’t be heard, even in the next room. Everyone can see where this is going, right? It’s clearly foreshadowing that the final confrontation will take place in an apartment in London, and no one will ever find themselves trapped or injured in the house, unable to call for help.

        As for whether the house was “not-so-bad” or not, eh, maybe. It was certainly physically comfortable enough, but I was still left with the impression it was pretty psychologically oppressive. I didn’t finish the book wishing I could go stay there.

        1. I did, but then medieval/Renaissance manor with later additions and modern heating and plumbing sounds like what I would buy if I had the money and the servants. 🙂

          I’ll grant you the unused dungeon was wasted pages (and inconsistent with the character of the past renovators). The ending was so bland I didn’t even remember it, beyond the whodunnit resolution. Kind of a weirdly structured book, with a weak romance track centered on characters who really aren’t that heavily involved in the mystery, but I thought the identities of the killer and the main red herring were cool.

  2. There’s a fantasy trilogy out there–I think it’s the Bitterbynde series? At any rate, while the plot premise and characters are (mostly) interesting…the author apparently ate and then barfed up a thesaurus when she was writing it. Lists and lists and LISTS of things described (and very quickly, they do come across as lists rather than “flavoring”). The writing was lovely, to be sure (I think she was trying to emulate Tolkien’s gift for describing something beautifully–although he also sometimes did it a bit too much…) but it got wearying very fast because there was SO MUCH of it. Worse, in order to tell us about the world, her characters were stopping the action every few pages to tell each other fairy stories (largely based on Irish myths & legends)…and so between that and the lists of descriptive words it all felt like meaningless filler.

    The breaking point for me, though, was when she used a word that I actually had to look up (that very, very rarely happens to me) to describe a minstrel (she used the word ‘peripatetic’). From the point of view of a mute character who cannot even read and who, until very recently, had been relegated to the scullery and had very little interaction with anyone but other servants. At that point, I threw up my hands and gave up on trying to read the book (it was actually my second time through–but the first time, I’d been 18 and a good deal less fussy) and the trilogy altogether.

    So…description is all well and good–and how much is used can be a matter of taste (please don’t do lists)–but as you said: make sure that it makes sense for the POV whose head you are currently in.

    (Incidentally: you are NOT the only person who couldn’t get into Hitchiker’s Guide. I did enjoy it when someone read it aloud to us…but had zero desire to ever read any of the others. Adams was quite funny…but after having experienced Pratchett at his best, Adams definitely comes across as entirely too rambling.)

    1. HHGTTG started off as a BBC radio show so it’s not surprising it might be better as an audio book.

    2. You didn’t miss anything by not finishing Bitterbynd. The first book was pretty good (IMHO), the second started to shake, and I walled the third one. I think the author got so busy with all the details in the description that the plot vanished. Or the author hit a mental wall and didn’t know how to finish the series. Thus the two possible endings (sort of.)

  3. If it is important later, and is something the characters don’t normally notice, can you put them in a situation where they would notice and comment on it?

    Like with the white and black friends, could they have an early thing where they are going to be out in the sun for a long time, and they’re joking about which one needs sunscreen? “Man, you’d better be slathering that stuff on, or you’re going to be a lobster by the time we’re done.” “Hey, I don’t see you bringing any.” “That is because I don’t need any. I merely acquire a more luxurious hue. You, on the other hand turn into boiled shellfish.”

    Or they’re getting suits for something and the white one wears dark suits, while the black one trends towards lighter suits, because otherwise there isn’t enough contrast?

    “Dang, this thing doesn’t fit me at all. This one’s built for your shape, not mine.”

    “Oh, I can see it now. Storm cloud and the polar express! Shame. It is a nice cut.”

  4. “I’m going through that exact problem right now in the time travel WIP. One character is white; the other is black. But they’ve been friends for so long that they don’t notice; the other one is ‘my friend,’ not ‘my black friend,’ or ‘my white friend.’”

    Me: Just because you don’t burn easily doesn’t mean you can’t get skin cancer. Use the sunblock.
    Him: Fine . . .

    Me: Please put this sunblock on my back.
    Him: I hate doing this: I always feel like I can’t do it right and then you burn.
    Me: Better you do it than no one.

    Me: You work indoors at mid-latitude and are toned for outdoor tropics! Take the @#$&! Vitamin D!
    Him: All right, all right . . .

    Him: I have blond hair in my beard again. (while detangling it)
    Me: I am not responsible for you sleeping with your chin on my head.

    Now, you know which of us is black and which white, Blake, but if you didn’t I bet any of those exchanges would start cluing you in about it. Anything like that you could use?

    1. :suppressed scream:

      LCPL White.

      One of the darkest fellows I’ve ever met, short of the “literally ebony colored” guys.

      Like, dark chocolate colored. (Yes, that’s half of why I remember his name; the other half is ATAN White, who was blond)

      …he discovered that it was POSSIBLE to sunburn, to the point he got dragged to medical on Monday morning.

      Technically, he was supposed to get written up, but… .no, they weren’t that stupid, he had NO IDEA it was PHYSICALLY POSSIBLE to burn, he’d never burnt before he spent 9 months out of the sun.

      1. That could be another way to show that one character so white an the other is black:

        “Remind me of that time you put yourself in the hospital with sunburn?”

        “How the hell was I supposed to know that? You’re the one who’s supposed to burn in direct sunlight!”

  5. Well, in terms of skin color, I provide it for four out of seven of my squad characters in the omniscient narrator’s voice. The other three I don’t provide, so the reader can pick whatever they want, which is how I do it for all the other supporting characters. Basically, I provide gender for all the main characters, and specifically mention race only for four. I’m just trying to provide a visual tag — using some, but not all indicators, such as height, age, skin color, sex, freckles, skin shade. And yes, I did actually meet a black guy with red freckles once. It stuck with me.

    TSgt Antoine Ambrose Carrington of the Shrike Operations Squadron was assigned to Retrieval Operations. Currently, his squad (not to be confused with squadron) was in charge of first stage transport from down pad BC-1 to the check-out hangar, where they decided whether to send it on to the refurbishment facility or the operational hangar.

    Spec4 Correia and Specialist Budd were the drivers: Shrike stage transport, hi-rail trucks. Heck, even garden variety jeeps if necessary. Correia was the biggest and oldest on their team, and underneath his down pad helmet, bald. He’d just made the age cut-off to enlist in the Space Force. Budd was the youngest, a black Texan with red freckles, not quite as dark as Carrington, who just liked to drive. He’d just passed six months in the Space Force and made Spec2.

    Spec3 Garcia and Specialist Thomas ran the cranes, free-standing or overhead. Garcia was almost as old as Correia with years working in construction before he joined up, and had the muscles to show it. Thomas was pretty new to the Space Force, with only a few months as a Spec2. She was the shortest at five foot eight, and had several years in a factory, running forklifts and heavy equipment before she joined.

    Spec4 Hudson and Specialist Salinas considered themselves hackers. They did computer and microcontroller diagnostics and data monitoring. Salinas had the lightest skin in the squad. Which didn’t tan, like Hudson’s, but burned. He wore sunscreen.

    1. I always thought a good way to do it, without being ‘stick over the head blatant’ was to just work it into an ordinary ‘flavor’ line. Ie: “he wiped the rain off his face, leaving a shining trail on his dark skin” or something like that (that was a terrible line, but you get what I mean)

      1. In my case, I’m actually introducing all the squad members at once, and I just want a visual tag. I actually don’t see the physical appearance of my characters very well. It was really like looking through the fog, as Margaret Ball said, and I only did it because everyone says I need to give visual cues.

        The main point in mentioning race is to set the default. If the default is white, you just have to mention black. If the default is black, you just have to mention white. By specifically calling out both white and black, I establish that there is no default. Any of the squad may be any race. Just as any of the squad may have any color hair, although the only mention I make of hair is baldness.

        The thing is, race is an important visual indicator — not the only one, but an important one. I think we’re much too shy about pointing out race, when we don’t hesitate to point out someone’s height, build, hair color, or lack of hair.

        1. In Pyre & Ice, my two protagonists are young men on a terraforming station: one of them is mentioned as having a wispy moustache (i.e. late teens or very early 20s) and the other loses his lower leg early in the story. The first is from Australia, and the second from a Scots community on Mars, so I tried to get their respective accents right, but I don’t think I described their respective appearances much more than that, even though the Aussie is my main POV character. There’s about six other characters I actually described at all, and three of those are red-shirts of people I know. Some characters have Hispanic names. Another character has a Vietnamese name. Most of the cast is introduced just by rank and name; I actually don’t know how many black characters I used or how many Arapahoe, or Chinese. If I was writing about mid-20th-century Georgia, race would matter to the story. It didn’t, so I left it out.

          Does a story need it? Sometimes it does, and sometimes not.

  6. When writing a story, if you know you should put ONE detail here, to avoid clutter, and you can’t decide between TWO — write them both.

    Revise one out later in cool blood. It’s much easier than trying to remember the detail you now think is right.

    1. THIS.

      A friend compared writing to peering through fog to find out what your characters are doing. Sometimes the fog clears, and the appropriate response is to thank the muse while writing everything you can see/hear as fast as you can to keep up with the characters. Some of what you see can be deleted or moved later (for instance, moving a detail to what was a particularly foggy place in the first draft).

  7. Regarding the color issue, I remember a conversation in the time traveling story “To Say Nothing of the Dog” in which Character X couldn’t be sent to Victorian England because, as a person of color, he would attract far too much attention. Depending on the time and place settings of one’s story, something similar could be done.

    And as for too much detail… I remember reading the first book in a cozy mystery series (The Coffeehouse Mysteries) which I walled two chapters in because the narrator, having found a body in the cellar and called the police, kept breaking off the action to lecture the reader about why you should never store coffee in the freezer and then making one of the cops an authentic Greek coffee just like his grandmother used to make. I just couldn’t stand it.

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