Book Reviews & Discussions, Character Development, Writing Resources, Writing workshops

It’s all in the details…or is it?

Less than 60 pages in, I am about to put We Were The Mulvaneys on my “Got Bored, Maybe Later” Goodreads shelf. Now I know this book is highly regarded, as is Oates herself. And I respect her talent, and her longevity as a writer, very much enjoyed The Falls.  But this crossroads I’m at brings me to a dilemma on which I think both readers and writers are split.

Details. Or to be more precise, the balance of details in a work of fiction. I excuse poetry from this opinion, because poetry lives and breathes by detail.

One camp loves reading or writing the flowery prose that describes page after page of what a character looks like, how the birds flap their wings in a tree or the architectural details of a church where a murder just occurred.

The other camp would rather have brevity where details are concerned, leaving more of the imagination process up to the reader.

I am undoubtedly a member of the latter camp. What others see as excellently-executed description, I find long-winded. Sometimes I want to construe for myself the precise details of a character; and I have a good enough idea of what wings sound like when they flap. And finally, unless the architectural style of the church has some bearing on the crime at hand, it will suffice to call it Italian Renaissance with a line or two of deeper description if you can’t stop yourself.

I also find that these lengthy descriptions are of the visual majority. Not always, but often. I would rather have smaller snippets from multiple sense than a two-page recital of how the woods look.

And because I lean this way as a reader, then as a writer I have to work at making sure I include enough description. I don’t necessarily have a problem writing it, although it certainly doesn’t come to me as easy as dialogue – I just have to make sure I balance the two. And that becomes my issue as a reader. I crave dialogue to break up description, so I get annoyed when writers don’t give me what I want.

Last night I listened to a lecture where this exact subject came up. The lecture was given by Anjali Sachdeva, and was entitled, “Step Away from the Desk – Experiential Writing“.  Sachdeva earned her BA in English at Yale, and her MFA in Creative Writing at The University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. The lecture’s main focus is encouraging writers to experience life, talk to people, learn something new – all in an effort to write from something other than strictly your imagination. More specifically, to provide more experiences from which to pull, and therefore adding to what your great imagination already gives you.

During the discussion, the topic of details came up. She spoke my thoughts exactly. What she said was that the best writing is when writers limit themselves to details that tell a larger story. Her example was someone describing a kitchen. There is no need, she said, to write that there is a refrigerator in the room, or a microwave. Those details the reader can guess themselves.

Better writing would be describing a brownie-laden hand print at the bottom of the refrigerator door; or a slobbery red ball sitting in a water dish on the floor under the microwave. SHE’S SO RIGHT!!  Sachdeva reminds us that these details tell us things we couldn’t have guessed ourselves. They tell us that there’s a child in the house, there are pets in the house and that the owner of the house probably isn’t too worried about a spotless kitchen. I mean, she hit the nail on the head for me!

Of course the whole discussion is subjective. I like chocolate ice cream – you may like strawberry (I can’t stand strawberry!). You may enjoy the flowery prose that some writers are known for. Or you may find it overwhelming, and too heavy-handed. It’s just my opinion. Don’t set such a stage; don’t world-build yourself out or a reader.

I think I’ve made a decision. I know this book is important – too much has been written about it to not think that at its core, in the end, it’s probably a great story. But I just can’t buy that every animal on their farm or every block of the town is worthy of characterization.  I’ve struggled to not skip over line after line of description, and I just think there are too many other books out there I’m excited to read. I wonder if editors of such well-known authors are too intimidated sometimes than to do their best job all the time?

And hey, I’m not saying never…I’m just saying maybe later.

write on 🙂

2 thoughts on “It’s all in the details…or is it?”

  1. I love rich, detailed description! when I encountered Tolkien’s sweeping vistas and in-depth minutiae as a teen, I soaked it in like a sponge. I’m solidly in the camp of those readers who don’t feel truly engaged with a story unless I can smell the tilled earth, hear the twittering birds flying in formation overhead, and feel the spring grass under my feet. I need all of those important details for the story to feel like it’s happening in a believable place to believable people. But the crux of that is just what you also emphasized, “important” details. Every word in description has to count, and it’s critical to be able to do a lot with a little.


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