Tuesday, October 16, 2018
THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS by Cheryl Pierson
There’s an old saying that “the devil’s in the details” that’s true in many circumstances in life, but I think it’s especially true in all forms of art.
Of course, it’s obvious to us in visual art—paintings, drawings, photography—and tactile art such as a beautiful quilt or piece of pottery, or a woven basket.
Hexagon Quilt--selling for over $6000! But look at the work and the detail that went into this "work of art"!
But what about books? Are you a reader who loves lots of descriptive details? Or do those bog you down and leave you frustrated and impatient?
I have to admit, as I’ve gotten older, there are many kinds of stories that I feel could do with less detail in some areas. A lot of my "changes" come from looking at the way details and descriptions are presented more closely when I read. I’ve evolved into this kind of reader.
As a younger reader, I needed those details to help me create images in my mind. The descriptions were beautiful to me because I knew less of the world, and everything I read was a learning experience! Have you ever thought about it like that?
When I was a YA reader, whether reading sci-fi books (during the flying saucer craze) or historical fiction, I needed those descriptions and details to feed my hunger for learning about—well, everything!
“Back in the day” I think authors engaged readers with a different type of writing style, too. Ours had not yet become a world of technology such as it is now. Life “took longer”—and happened at a much more unhurried pace. It was important for writers to create pictures in the readers’ minds—because there was no way to already have a pre-conceived idea of the things the author was trying to describe.
Here’s what I mean: In today’s world, we are inundated with images of all kinds, from instant pictures on our phones that we take ourselves, to movies, to ads on television, to video on Youtube. And so much more—this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Can you see how this de-values art? When a beautiful picture can be photoshopped together in minutes and seen by millions, or even mass produced in ways that hadn’t been thought of fifty years ago, the artist who painstakingly delivers every brush stroke “the old-fashioned way” can be under-appreciated in a hurry!
Some writers suffer this same twist of fate in a different way. Because our lives are so rushed, and our society has been geared toward “quick reads” we’ve lost the pleasure of savoring those descriptions of the setting, the characters, even the emotions of the “players” in the books we read. It seems that finishing a book is more important than, as we once did, lingering over certain passages and re-reading them for the sheer joy of the way the words came together, the image they created for our hungry minds—and souls.
I realize, for my part, not needing as much detail and description in my reading of some material is because I’m older. I’ve read more, seen more, and (hopefully) know more—so certain things don’t have to be described to me in as much detail every time.
My confession—and you may all think this is weird—I do not ever skim. Even when I don’t feel the need for the minutiae that may be included, I read every word. What if I miss something? Deep down, I believe the author must have thought it important or he/she wouldn’t have included it!
What’s your pet peeve? Too much description? Not enough? More description needed of the characters? Or do you want some things left to your own imagination?
One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite - that particular peach is but a detail.
I learned no detail was too small. It was all about the details.
Sometimes when you start losing detail, whether it's in music or in life, something as small as failing to be polite, you start to lose substance.
Do you remember a book you’ve read that you thought was too detailed? IS there such a thing? I think many of the authors from the earlier days wrote in that style—it was just how it was done—and there was no mass media to show instant pictures, so there was even so much more to learn through reading.
For modern-day books that show a complete mastery of adding wonderful detail and pulling you into the story, there is no better author than Kathleen Eagle. I've never read a story by her that I didn't love and one of the main reasons is the adept talent she has for adding the smallest details as the story moves along and drawing the reader right into each and every scene, as if you are truly there with her characters, experiencing their pain, loss, worry, and love.
Subscribe to: Post Comments (Atom)
What an interesting perspective. I realized that writing styles changed over time, but never gave a thought as to how that impacted on the way we describe things.ReplyDelete
It's fascinating, isn't it, Christine? You know one thing that got me thinking about this was the very thought that here in the US, many states are doing away with teaching cursive writing in schools! The kids never learn it unless they're taught at home by someone, because school systems feel they don't need it since everything is digital now. Breaks my heart, because I write out everything longhand before I enter it into the computer. Why? Because that's where I get my creativity and always has been, from my earliest days. I've always found such joy in just having a pen or pencil and a blank piece of paper. To think there are generations now who won't ever be able to do that is just incredible to me.Delete
So in my mind, I was thinking about how writing styles and the ACT of writing, itself, has changed and will change in my lifetime, alone. Description is one of the first things that came to mind that has changed tremendously in the written word.
From my retired teacher's perspective, the cursive writing issue is 'mostly' because the state achievement tests don't test cursive writing proficiency so why bother with teaching it when there isn't enough time in a school week to teach what is state-tested. (I'm not saying I agree, just saying it's a reason.)Delete
I wish there was some way of NOT tying funding to testing. I know there has to be some kind of standardization, but to me, that really puts a wrench in so many things.Delete
Great article, Cheryl. Can't wait for your take on characters. I love to read the older books. In those days, boy does that sound old, poetry was in its heyday and that pacing and rhythm was present in prose--not so much now days. Books were easier read aloud because of it.ReplyDelete
Darrel, I could probably do a 2-3 part article on character descriptions alone. LOL And something that we don't think about is that even that style changes from genre to genre--it's not the same standard for describing a main character in a romance novel as in a sci-fi novel, say. Is it because the reader is interested in different aspects of the characters in the different types of books? Partly, I think.Delete
I, too, love those older books--as you say, they lend themselves to a style that really begs to be read aloud--you can see why that was a family pastime "back in the day" -- I always think of that scene in Gone With the Wind where Melanie is reading aloud and everyone knows where the men are except for Scarlett.
I always read to my kids, even when they could have read it for themselves--because it gives you time to discuss things with them, explain, and just enjoy time together. Something else that's lost in today's world.
I've always been a character-oriented writer and reader. I see the story as what the characters do and perceive, which is not always what is around them. To me most descriptive prose is stuff to skip over to get to the next set of quotation marks.ReplyDelete
Hi Author Guy! I feel the same way sometimes--depending on what I'm reading. I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, so there are a lot of details and descriptions that sometimes might be of much more interest (and understood better!) by those who read a lot of sci-fi novels than by me. Still, I don't skim. I really do try to read and understand and pay attention to it, because I think at some point, it may be something I need to know that is pertinent to the story. And, sometimes...well, it's not. LOLDelete
Like you, I'm all about the characters. I want to know all about them, and what they are thinking, doing, and feeling.
I love the right kind of detail, the ones that move the story along without bogging me down. Of course, in my research I read a lot of writing from the 1800s and boy was that full of detail. At the same time, I enjoy most of those stories because they do describe a time I'm not familiar with. It is the perspective of writers who are living that life.ReplyDelete
It is a fine line between too much and not enough and its the author who deftly handles those details that you love. You've given both writers and readers much to think about. Doris
Doris, when I got started thinking about this, I couldn't quit. LOL I was lying in bed awake the other night thinking about this. Exciting stuff, huh? LOLDelete
Yes, I think there are so many details from historical time periods that have gone before because they've had years to be studied, collected, gone over with a fine toothed comb and written about. Isn't it strange to think that in future generations, they'll do the same for our time?
It depends upon the author for me. Louis L'Amour's details are just right for me, because his westerns 'speak' to me. Victor Hugo's details are too much, but then, I'm not a French history historian, and I get bogged down in his details. J.R.R. Tolkien is a wizard *pun intended* at writing details, which was necessary to build his fantasy world. For Sci-Fi... Robert Heinlein was also masterful in an understated way with his details. I lean more toward liking description more than dialogue, but I think this is because my non-fiction reading out numbers my fiction reading by quite a bit.ReplyDelete
Kaye, I think readers who read more non-fiction aren't nearly as bogged down in details and description as those who read more fiction. The non-fiction is based on details and building the outcome on facts and actual happenings. In the fiction world, it's all pure imagination. I agree with you about Louis L'Amour! He has some of the most beautiful passages of description (one of the things I want to talk about later) and I never get bogged down when reading his stories.Delete
I do skim over description as I've matured, if it goes on and on. I loved author Emilie Loring's books as a young teen, but she might describe every petal on a rose bush, (exaggerating only a little). The rules were different when her books were popular. Books opened with a little backstory to set the mood. I liked that.ReplyDelete
Today's readers are more action-oriented. "Get to the point!" they seem to shout. Although, I try to abide by the "Action-in-the-first-paragraph rule", in my own books, I've been guilty of drifting into backstory in my first draft. I catch it later and make cuts. But this "drifting" helps me get to know my main character. So, it isn't a waste of time. I just cut this part out later, or weave it into a later chapter.
YES, Laurean! I agree. Those older books were written in that style and everyone did it--it was what was popular and accepted. Now, there has to be action in the beginning or people just aren't interested. Very sad, because I, too, like a little lead-up to the story sometimes, and sometimes that lead up can make the true action of the story even more exciting. But it does seem like those days are over. LOLDelete
Thanks for stopping by. I'm like you, too--I will cut those places where I seem to get away from the action too soon and get into description--time for that later on.
I like details in a story that give me an image of where the characters are and what's going on so I can feel a part of the story. I do not like when an author waxes on and on with details that have no relevance to the story plot.ReplyDelete
I loved reading the Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon, but she had these places in which she went on and on about herbal remedies and botany for pages until it became a big snore. God love her, she has a doctorate in botany, but all that plant detail did not enhance the story line. In fact, I felt those extraneous details took me away from the characters and the action.
So, yeah, I do think an author, even one who is a great story teller, can go too far with details and derail the story.
Great subject, Cheryl.
Sarah, you made me laugh! "A big snore"--yes, I guess every author out there has some passages that are "a big snore" to some readers, right? I'd forgotten about those passages in her books--you're right--but I read them, and never skimmed! LOLDelete
All kidding aside, yes, I think a lot of unnecessary detail DOES derail the story! We want to move on with the action, not take time for a history lesson or a class in weaponry or plant life. In many cases it reminds me of the old days when we'd go on vacation and my mom would love the scenery so much and she'd try to take pictures of the mountains or the sunset, etc. and of course, you know what happens when you get the pictures back from a Kodak Instamatic camera of a gorgeous sunset...yeah...it's nice, but it's nothing like the real thing. So it is with descriptions sometimes.
Thanks for stopping by, Sarah!
Cheryl, Thanks so much for a very interesting blog. It makes us authors sit up and take notice of our work; to remember what and how we want our readers to feel, sense, and to visualize, while making our characters so strong and so interesting that they are totally engaged and invested in them, and the story. I've always felt if a story makes a reader, cry, laugh, or maybe even giggle, or even get angry, to feel the emotions of our characters and feel all the ups and downs, then we've done our jobs. Over the years I've read several genres, oodles of authors, but my love is historical romance. So long story short, when I'm reading I enjoy a story that pulls me in with all five scenses--so I need the descriptions to feel I'm there, yet not so much it gets humdrum; while at the same time I need and will be rooting for and be invested in the believeable, interesting and strong characters as well. LaVyrle Spencer, Kathryn Woodwiss, JoAnna Lindsay, oodles more were my intorduction to historical romance--loved them all. I think those ladies used just the right recipe for 50% characters and 50% surroundings and settlings. Oh the list goes on.ReplyDelete
Oh, yes, Bev! I should have mentioned LaVyrle Spencer and also another favorite of mine, Penelope Williamson. Those authors use detail to such perfection. The first book of LaVyrle Spencer's I ever read was Morning Glory--I usually don't read books in that time period, but that one--I liked the blurb on the back and thought I would try it since I'd not read any of her books. OMG! That book was so wonderful with the details she used and the way she told that story--you could see that entire town just as she described it, and the people, too.Delete
And you are so right about the 5 senses. That's very important. And sometimes, really hard to do. I find myself relying more on sight and hearing than anything else. I have to be careful of that when I'm writing.
Thanks for stopping by, Bev!
I love a fast-paced story and I skim. That's how I learned to read--by picking out pertinent details and skimming the rest. So now I have no patience for long passages of narrative, be it description or another repetition of how the character feels and why he's doing what he's doing. My eyes hunt for the next bit of dialogue because I want to get on with the story. I doubt if I read more than 2/3 of the words in the best books and maybe half or fewer in most. And I never miss a thing.ReplyDelete
OTOH, this is why I could never be an editor. Ever. And I'm a terrible proofreader!
Jacquie, that's the great thing about this ol' world--we all have our ways of doing things and our different talents! I'm terrible about writing reviews because I give away too much! LOLDelete
Yes, I love the dialogue, too. I mentioned Kathleen Eagle above, and I have to say, her dialogue is always so good and yet, you have to think about it sometimes, because it always "ties in" somehow to what's happening--it's never just "there" to fill up space.
Thanks so much for stopping by, my friend. Got the moving all done? Unpacking finished?
We're maybe half done. The kitchen is pretty well set up so that helps. None of the other rooms are done.ReplyDelete
You're making progress! That's good!Delete
I like description of what is going on around the characters and action, the terrain, the room, etc and what the characters are doing. I just finished writing a book about a female wildlands firefighter ("Blazing Summer"). There's a lot more to firefighting that spraying water or throwing dirt on fires. I try and show some of that by working it into the story and not just a info dump. In "The Hardest Ride" I worked in some details of what they ate and wore and how things were done and many reviewers commented on how that enhanced the story. I keep it simple and short. I think it adds more to the story within reason and helps build the scenes, the mood, and the environment.ReplyDelete
I agree, Gordo. I love the idea of adding in a few details that actually make a difference and aren't redundant. Building the environment is really important and a lot of people don't understand that.Delete