Wednesday, January 15, 2014

TTYU Retro: Caught between too much pointless detail and not enough? Choose your "logic of caring."

This post was originally written in response to writer Linda Adams. Commenting on my post, "How much worldbuilding before you write?" she asked,

"Any additional recommendations for someone who is not detail-oriented? I can do the research, accumulate the details, but they don't mean anything to me. I end up either having not enough or putting way too much in. Makes it hard to figure out what to research. ... According to all my critiquers (this is a very consistent comment), my writing lacks details. When I put them in, I do too little or go too far, because they don't really mean much to me. Someone at Capclave said to just look at my coworkers desks to pick up details I could use, and I'm sitting here thinking: Yeah, and then I'd shovel all my observations in the story and everyone would tell me I'd gone too far with the details. So it makes research tough for me because I'm not sure what to research for specific details. Right now I'm reduced to: I have a garden. Gardens have trees, so I need tree names."

Perhaps some of you have run into this issue. I certainly have! Linda, thanks for asking this question, because it's an important one.

So what does make the difference between important and "extra" detail?

It's not whether details are available, because details are always available. If you think about it, the world is full of so much detail that we can't even begin to comprehend it all. As Linda says, gardens have trees, and trees have names, but they also have parts, and scientific names, and then there are the flowers, and who the heck cares about all that?

In my own experience, that is the fundamental criterion: whether someone cares about the detail, rather than the detail itself.

Now, you may say that this doesn't even begin to solve the problem, and you'd be right. How do you know what readers are going to care about? It's all a matter of taste, right? 

Fortunately, though reader opinion enters in, it's not entirely idiosyncratic. There are (at least) three logical ways to deduce what kind of details will be most relevant for readers. You can choose one or all of the above!

1. Genre
Readers will often come into a book looking for a particular type of experience. In fantasy, or in romance, the word "lush" is often used in praise - not so in thrillers or police procedurals. As a first step, consider what your audience will be looking for. If you're writing Regency romance, the details of people's clothing and the details of what rooms and homes look like are going to be very important, and demanded by readers. If you're doing very technology-filled science fiction, people are going to want to be able to glimpse how the world is put together and the kinds of technology that keep it running. All these details must not drag a reader off the main conflict of the story, but if they are absent, people are likely to feel the loss.

2. Character
This is the one I use the most. Characters, their cultural backgrounds and attitudes, and their differing perceptiveness, make a perfect filter for detail. Ask yourself what your character is looking for, and why, as he or she enters a room. That will tell you a lot about what details the character will notice, and if you are writing in tight point of view as I do, that basically means that you've eliminated all other details from contention. If the character doesn't notice it, or care about it, then it doesn't matter. Only if you are trying to make sure some special detail makes it in - like for example some clue to a puzzle you're leaving for the reader, which the character notices but doesn't understand until later - will you have to include something that the character doesn't pay much attention to. To go back go Linda's garden example, there's really no reason you need to know the names of the trees in a garden unless your character is a gardener, or a botanist, or for some reason deeply cares about the names of trees. Otherwise the character's emotional impression of the garden is more important, and the details you choose should contribute directly to that.

3. Metaphorical meaning
This is the one you'll often hear people laughing about. "The curtains were blue, and was it because the character was sad? Why does it have to be because the character was sad, when the curtains were just $&^%$ blue?" While I can see the humor in the joke, metaphorical meaning is a really good way to think through what details you would like to include. In some sense, you can tie it back to the emotion of the character, but this isn't the same as working with the character (as above) because it can be done with or without internal point of view. Even if you are working with a considerable degree of narrative distance, the details you choose to include will reflect - or can/should reflect - the character's attitude, and what's important to the main conflict about that scene.

I'll give you an example from my own work. Recently I was revising a scene in which the Lady of the house is about to go see her abusive husband in the hospital. She's feeling very conflicted about his illness, and feels like she needs strength, so she asks her servant to get her a jacket to wear (the "detail" is that she chooses to wear a jacket rather than going without). Her servant gets the jacket, internally realizes she wants it to be like armor, and thinks that he needs to become part of her armor as well. The first part of his realization, I suppose, is leading the reader into the meaning of the jacket detail (armor). But the second part, where he feels he needs to become part of the armor, evokes two things: a. the servant's desire to protect her, which he has always had, and b. the servant's desire to be close to her (to be worn). To be more specific, the servant goes from wanting to be her shadow (suggesting one kind of relationship) to wanting to be her armor (suggesting a different kind of relationship).

I hope this gives you some meaningful and logical criteria on which to base your choice of details. I have some other posts on this issue (Insider setting details/Audience setting details, Making description subjective) and I'm also happy to discuss in comments!