Friday, May 17, 2019

Details: Too Much vs. Not Enough

In one of my recent writing workshops, we had a very engaging discussion about description and attention to detail. Many writers first discover their interest in the craft through describing a room, a situation, a moment, and they grow from there. But as our skills expand, we have to decide when our descriptive flair is the best tool for the moment, and when our attention to detail takes away from the writing.

Let's start with a common issue in writing: White Room Syndrome. This is as simple as it sounds - a scene so devoid of description that the reader can't establish the environment. Most writers go through this when they want to jump right in to the drama of the scene - the dialogue, the action, the conflict from an exciting plot twist. However, these things cannot exist in a void. The reader needs something to attach to. Even a simple location cue is a start - a warehouse, a basement, a crowded train station. As these areas, or establishing scenes, are created, the reader fills in the blanks and can pay attention to the action rather than the emptiness.

However, our establishing scene is probably very vivid in our mind. Someone's man cave in the basement can be alive with descriptive potential. Even the words, "man cave" evoke images of neon beer signs, a television of unholy width, a wet bar, dartboards, and La-Z-Boy recliners everywhere. These rooms are fun to describe, and using a flair for detail can eliminate any trace of White Room Syndrome. However, the danger is falling for the opposite trap - The Crowded Page.

A Crowded Page is a trap of ego. When we want to write about our man cave, we can enjoy going deep into our descriptions. We flood the reader with neon glows and heavy shadows, the pool table, ash trays, humidors, movie posters, wood paneling, that smell of smoke and stale beer, the shag carpeting, and so forth. The list can go on for pages - and on a Crowded Page, it does. The writer has so much fun writing about the scenery that the story fades into the background. It is showing off the ability to describe without moving things along, and possibly without adding value. Think about the first mention of the term, "man cave." In most people's minds, that evokes a particular image - a default setting. If the man cave in the writing is no different than that, then those two words do the same amount of work as three paragraphs of describing what is already imagined.

Two exceptions exist to the Crowded Page. First, engaging description is fine if it contributes to mood or setting. If this man cave is described in a voice that describes loneliness, overcompensation, or a desperate need to entertain, then pages of description add value to the story. Those words go beyond description - they speak to character, to emotional setting, even to possible foreshadowing. When the purpose goes beyond stage-setting, it's fine. The other exception is when something stands apart from the usual. If the man cave in question is actually very elegant, decorated with antique French furnishings and a 19th century fainting couch, the artwork all prints from the Era of Romanticism, then this is important because it rewrites expectations. Each detail that goes against convention stands out, and attracts the reader. The man cave now sounds like a place where the man in question is French King Louis XIV. Readers will remember that.

Lastly, description and details hold a very special place in targeting a specific emotional response. If the man cave has framed movie posters on the walls, that speaks to the setting, it develops the overall scene. But if those posters are specifically detailed as themed around Humphrey Bogart movie - The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The African Queen - that specificity brings out a sense of nostalgia, antiquity, and adventure. Switch one poster to Casablanca, and there's a romantic element. And if those are the only specific details in the room, the mood they create will define the man cave.

Lastly, here's a special use of detail - using it in poetry. While poetry is very emotional and telling, details can do amazing things. I will close with one of my favorite poems. It is a nice naturalist piece, but I find it so effective from how it isolates little details that make nature dominate the scene. Enjoy.

The Peace of Wild Things

Wendell Berry
When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children's lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

2 comments:

  1. I could see excess description being effective for a mystery novel. Hiding clues amidst the scenery would keep readers looking.

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    Replies
    1. Definitely. That's a contribution to the setting plus it helps the genre. At that point, description becomes a part of the story.

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