Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Too Much Detail v Too Little Detail

Nice Girls Do was centred around an C18th landscape garden so of course I had to describe it, so the reader could get an idea of what it was like.  It was a complicated lay out within a steep sided valley, based on a real garden that I'd visited plus my own twiddly bits added on, and I wrote it all out in great detail - down here for fifty feet, along there until a sharp right hand turn, zigzagging down the valley, up six steps then along a bit then curving to the left...

No one in my writing group had a clue what I was going on about.  They were trying to visualise this 3-D description and getting hugely lost but more than that, they were struggling to remember all the details because that level of detail implied that it was all important information that they'd need later on.

It was a great lesson for me.  It didn't matter at all if the readers could visualise the garden exactly as I saw it, all that mattered was that they had a visual image.  I could have written, 'it's very overgrown and in a valley with a lake at the bottom' and that would have been enough detail for the reader to imagine the garden.

But not enough detail for the garden to seem real.  You need some specific details - the smaller the better - for a place or thing to seem real.  It's that specific garden, not any old generic garden.  The trick is to concentrate on atmospheric details - the scent of decaying leaves on the path, the play of sun light through the gently swaying branches - rather than any detail that involves measurement or the reader having to work something out - along fifty feet, down eight steps, north of the summer house.  

It's not really a question of too much detail or too little detail, it's more the sort of detail. Quality, not quantity.


Susan May said...

Sarah, every time I read your blog posts, I am amazed by how brilliant they are in their concise and informative advice. I wish I lived in England so I could study with you. However I feel, with your blog that I am studying by international mail. I know most of the things you are saying & I've written about them at my own blog. However it's fantastic to be reminded about them & is something every writer needs. Great blog...no, make that super awesome blog.

Sarah Duncan said...

Susan, gosh, thanks - I'm blushing like mad over here.

penny simpson said...

No, don't blush. Susan is right as you are, as usual, bang on the money