Detail: To each his own

I am a great admirer of the writing of Diana Gabaldon.  I can lose myself in her descriptions of her characters and of her settings, and of her scenes.  I can “see” everything because of the rich detail–not just of scenes, clothes, appearance, etc., but of body language.

I love the various characters coming in and out; I love it even better as the series progresses and Claire’s family begins to grow while she and Jamie age; I love reading how she deals with various dilemmas.  I love the storylines/plots.

I love the little details, such as Jamie reading a romance novel and laughing, or the family abandoning Samuel Richardson’s Pamela at various points.  (I’ve read the first volume and part of the second, so I know why they abandon it.)  Even her sex scenes are better than most (usually I skip sex scenes, feeling like a voyeur).

In short, she makes me feel terribly inadequate as a writer.

In working on my own novel, I feel there’s no way I can measure up, yet this seems to be what modern writing is like: richly detailed, well-researched.  This is why so many books since I came of age, have been hundreds of pages long.  This seems to be what readers expect.

Last night, I discovered that this is not necessarily the case: Apparently quite a lot of people think that Gabaldon’s writing is amateurish, way too detailed, boring, with little story/plot.

Of course, many people also think Jane Austen’s work is way too boring, with little story/plot.  Yet I’ve read Austen’s books several times over, and find them page-turning, with lots of story/plot.

I tend to read more literary-style books, often the old classics they forced on us in high school (I loved them all), but also modern classics.  I’m used to books that are hundreds of pages long.  I read writing books in the 80s that told us to add body language detail and to make the scene “pop” with all the senses.  I came of age reading the books that were popular in the 80s/90s, 1000-page tomes rich with detail about caveman days, or Cleopatra, or 1740s Scotland.

So I get a bit confused by the modern tendency to want shorter books and less detail.  But on the other hand, it’s actually a bonus for a writer like me: As an NVLDer, I don’t really “see” scenes very well.  Some people see movies in their heads; except for books as detailed as Gabaldon’s, I see shadow figures moving in mist, where the only things that come in clearly are objects that are used at that moment.

Paragraphs full of rich detail are also hard for me to read and picture, because I’m picturing one thing at a time, not all at once.  I can’t “hold” the details in my head for very long, so I keep having to go back and re-read the paragraphs.  So I’ll end up taking several minutes on one such paragraph alone, making my reading speed very slow.

So it’s hard for me to write details into scenes, the body language, the scenery, that sort of thing.  I don’t “see” it myself, after all.  I don’t know the little tics people get while talking, because eye contact is so hard for me.

But I get conflicting criticism when I workshop parts of my book.  Some people want richer detail so they can “see” the scene better, “taste” the soup, etc.  (That person  was new and didn’t know I’d already described the cell and the soup several scenes back.)  But then I find all sorts of information on the Net that readers tend to skip over all those rich details to get to the action.  That it’s not just me getting bogged down in it.

Yet, ironically, Gabaldon’s writing is an exception for me.  Yes, it still takes me a long time to get through the paragraphs of detail, but her scenes are so full of emotion and body language that I have a more vivid picture in my head.  For example, it’s not just a dress somebody found for her wedding, but it’s a dress that smells of the previous owner.  It’s not just a sex scene, but two people who love each other shyly exploring each other for the first time.

Yet, for many people, all that detail is actually a turnoff.

So I’m reassured that I don’t have to feel inadequate anymore, that I don’t have to strive to measure up to writers such as Gabaldon, because lots of people don’t like that style of writing anyway.

So instead I can concentrate on how to make the characters real, and going into their heads to satisfy readers like me, without turning off readers who don’t like so much of that.  And not worry so much about infusing scenes with lots of body language or paragraphs of sensory details.  The occasional details should be enough.

 

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One Comment
  1. prysmcat

    I look at it this way:

    Some painters are known for realism and exquisite detail. Some are known for impressionistic work that may include less detail in the search to express the essence of it. Some distort the scene in their own ways.

    Beethoven doesn’t sound like the Grateful Dead, neither one sounds like Enya or whoever the current boyband is.

    While there are people who will argue vehemently that only one school of art or one genre of music has any real validity, there will always be someone else who just as fervently loves exactly what the others hate.

    The advice about what makes a “good novel” is impossible, because there is no universal “good novel.” Some stylistic points have value, sure, but much of it is subjective and trendy. Me, I tell stories. I tell them using all the skills I have – I make the characters come to life, I choose every word with care, I do a hundred other things to keep the flow and pacing smooth and avoid awkward phrasing. But I tell them my own way, not according to the current analysis of what sells. Has it led to a viral flood of sales? No, but that was never my goal, personally. If someone wants whatever’s trendy this week, they can find it elsewhere. Where’s the fun in doing the same thing as everyone else? 🙂

    Happy writing!

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