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The Importance of Detail

Writing is a rather unique medium. It lacks the visual punch of movies and videogames, the auditory delight of a classical symphony or rock concert. Ever bit of information is absorbed directly into the mind, where the mind produces images and sound to accompany the action described. No two people will “see” and “hear” the exactly same things, because no two people have the same mind. Yet everyone reads the exact same words. In a movie, you can see everything in a room in a matter of seconds. A novel can take ten to a hundred pages to intricately describe everything in that room. The unique aspect of the novel, that no other medium can match, is detail.

Take this line, for example:

“Bob opened the door and went into the room.”

This could easily be a line from a book. But doesn’t it feel like there’s something missing? It’s missing detail. We don’t know anything about the door, anything about the room, or anything about what Bob is thinking. A man opens a door and goes inside. It’s a story, but a story in it’s most basic, most simplistic form.

“The door was made of solid cedar, thick and imposing. Effort had been made to carve a series of griffins and serpents into its surface, accompanied by spirals and whirls that seemed without beginning or end. Bob could smell a faint scent that reminded him of boyhood days when he’d gone into the forests of northern California with his Scout troop. His hand lightly touched the handle of the door, almost afraid to open it. For a moment, he hesitated. This was what he’d been waiting for, right? He twisted the handle, the door opened. Beyond was a room almost impossible to believe. Shelves of books from floor to ceiling, a floor of polished marble that glistened wetly, and a ceiling that was a wide dome, perfectly round. Sitting beneath a chandelier that glimmered with a high polish, was the man himself: Mr. Dwight Alan. He held a Calabash pipe, exactly like the kind used by Sherlock Holmes, in one hand and Bob’s novel in the other.”

Notice the difference here? The basic story is unchanged, a man is opening a door and going inside, yet the second version is also so very different. We see a vivid image in our minds, of a grand study that’s clearly owned by a man of wealth. And a man who loves books, as he has so many. He’s also holding “Bob’s novel,” suggesting that Bob is a writer. It is also implied that Dwight Alan maybe be a¬†literary¬†critic of renown, perhaps this is why Bob is nervous.

In the first version we have no questions, because the line is so bland and ordinary that we are not drawn into the scene enough to wonder at what it’s about. The second version is so vivid and detailed that we have many things to wonder about and it is this wonder that leads us to read more. This is what novels offer: details that lead to questions, questions that lead to interest.

Is more detail always better than less detail? No, not always. A hundred pages describing the looks, feel, and inner-workings of a clock might only serve to utterly bog down the story to the point where readers become totally disinterested and stop reading. But perhaps this is somehow necessary to the plot and in line with reader expectations? As such, it need not be unnecessary. Several questions must be asked: What does my story demand? What do my readers expect? What do my writing skills allow? Ask these three questions of yourself and ponder how they relate to the story your writing. More detail can bog down a story, but less detail can leave readers disinterested. There is no right answer for everyone and every work.


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