“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” — Georgia O’Keefe (creator of the painting illustrated here, The White Flower).
“The little things are infinitely the most important.” — Sherlock Holmes
Any writers reading this know detail is a big part of what we do. Which ones we need to include. Which ones we have to include. Which ones we should leave out.
Detail can make or break a story. Details can bring a character to life — the scars on their back from fighting dinosaurs, their passion for playing chess by mail (yes, that used to be a thing), their freaky tattoo or being nitpicky about other people’s grammar. They can also bring settings to life: the smells, the flavors, the music. The minor details of alternate timelines, such as Leslie Howard and JFK still being alive in the film Quest for Love. Or the slightly different wording of the song “Teen Angel” in my Atoms for Peace (“That fateful night the saucers came/We were caught in their attack.”). For historical fiction or fantasy, the fine points of slang, culture, attitudes and politics can make the period vividly real.
Or take the throwaway line in Monty Python’s crunchy frog skit where a chocolatier points out the repellent ingredients in his chocs are all listed on the label — lark vomit comes “right after monosodium glutamate.” It makes the grotesque premise (there really is a small dead frog in “crunchy frog chocolate”) that much more vivid.
But as O’Keefe points out, details can also distract and confuse us. The classic example is dialogue. Real human speech is full of pauses, mumbling, distractions and repeated words (one of my friends used to use “like” in sentences as a punctuation mark). Even when quoting people as a reporter, I trimmed that stuff out.
Too much visual detail can bore or frustrate readers (it’s TYG’s biggest complaint about the Game of Thrones novels) as much as a lack of any detail. Some people love the nitty-gritty details of how magic systems work. I usually find them boring as all get-out (as long as the magic feels right and stays consistent, I’m fine with not knowing the details). Errors in factual details can make readers stop taking a book seriously. For example, a nonfiction work I read some years back that mentioned in passing that research into identical twins has proven our personality is 100 percent shaped by our genes. Um, NO.
Of course some readers or viewers will treat any inaccuracy or error as a fatal flaw that ruins the entire work. When Stage Crafters did A Glass Menagerie, we got a note from the audience that the pillows had those “do not remove this tag” tag on them even though they weren’t around at the time of the story (late 1940s). How could we make such an utterly incompetent error? Given that Tom, the protagonist, specifically states at the beginning this is a subjective story and not a literal retelling, that seems really pointless nitpicking. But for some people, the nits wreck the story.
So that’s part of the challenge. What some people see as a distracting detail, others are going to find fascinating and fundamental. There’s no perfect level of detail that works for every writer, every story, every reader.
But hey, nobody ever said our gig was easy.
#SFWApro. All rights to image remain with current holder.