Monday, April 19, 2010

How Much is Too Much?

Good Monday morning. Alice Valdal here with a burning question for readers everywhere.

Can you have too much detail in a story?

Too much setting?

Too much historical fact?

The answer, of course, is yes.

In my WIP, an historical that takes place over three years, I've used newspaper snippets at the top of each chapter to show a flavour of the era and the passage of time. My first reader just flagged all of them as boring. Ouch! As a history buff, Ifind them extremely interesting. So, what do readers want? Is the price of wheat in 1903 interesting to you? It is a prairie tale

At my book club this week, there were complaints that an author had used no description of various characters. In fact, the novel in question had several female characters and we couldn't keep them straight. They seemed like mere names on the page. Now, to make a character truly come alive, we need to know about her dreams and fears and goals and motivation and conflict, but many of the readers at that meeting wanted some description of what the character looked like, too.

So, as authors who write from a variety of locales, do we fill our books with local colour? I just read a set of guidelines that stipulated the publisher wanted a mini-travelogue in each romance story. Yet others have complained that too much attention to the type of architecture or the natural flora detracts from the story.

Personally, I like to feel the heat and dust if I'm reading about Africa or the Outback of Australia. I want the crisp, clear air of the Rocky Mountains, or the salt tang of a Nova Scotia seaport.

Details, details. How much is too much?

I conceived the notion for this article while weeding in my garden. Do you appreciate this photo of Coral Bells more or less for knowing my struggle with the dandelions?

Do you want to know if my heroine has blue eyes? Do you care who was King in 1910?

For more details about me, check out my webpage at


  1. Hi Alice
    I like suspense, so I like to be introduced to people in suspenseful ways, including their looks, mannerisms, etc. And what is mentioned ought to be meaningful: if a character's got a scar, it has to be relevant to the plot. I think Dickens is a good model for character, updated of course.

    Useful blog, but I liked the 'weeds' too!

  2. I generally figure the most a writer should show is maybe 10% of the information turned up in research. In my stuff, I try to work the setting in as passing hints that the characters are vaguely aware of unless it impinges directly on their life. After all, how often each day does the average person think of the leader of their country without prompting from their media, unless that leader has done something especially good, evil, or stupid. In the countries that go in for gigantic pictures of their leaders, most of the populace don't notice them after the first or second day; they're just part of the scenery.

    I give only the sketchiest descriptions of characters; usually only a word in passing. Possibly this is because I find the personality more important than their physical features. Unless the story turns on the fact Sid has bushy eyebrows, who cares? At most, a line might read: The sergeant glanced at the blond major. -OR- Rickter looked up at Porter. This cues the reader that the major is of European extraction and that Porter is taller than Rickter.

    An example of a something that can be suggestive of a character's personality occurs to me as I write this. In a present day American household, the fact that the character uses a percolator on the stove to make the morning coffee rather than the more common coffee maker says something about the character. What sets this off for an American reader is the fact that it's easier at he present time to find coffee makers in the stores rather than percolators. This can yield a line like: She thought about it as she poured a cup from the percolator. To an American, it suggests the character is different and, probably, older.

    I'm inclined to suspect writers in other countries have similar cues that they use that are possibly only noticeable to readers conversant with that society.

  3. I think it is much more about the writers STYLE than any set amount of description. I've read books that are full of description - setting, character analysis, historical or cultural trivia - you name it, but it still kept you reading. Somehow, skillful writers can manage to weave these details effortlessly into their stories and we injest all that info with no problem. I've also read lots (I mean LOTS) of other novels where I simply skim quickly over these descriptive parts so as not to get bored and so that I can just get on with the story! What's the difference? I guess it's all in the craft. And I guess it is what seperates the 'GREATS' from the 'goods'.

  4. Alice, great post! I agree with Tracy, that a writer's style is very important, and I also think genre makes a difference. Literary fiction lends itself more to detailed description then, for example, a short category romance.

    Also, as Ann and Walt have mentioned, the description included needs to be meaningful to the story.

  5. I try to find the telling detail that suggest the larger whole and have my character interact with it in some way. I see Walt's older person with the percolator absent-mindedly wiping a smudge from it's shiny surface. Now it is a perfectionist woman, neither things that he specifically mentioned.

  6. Yeah, LeAnne, it used to drive Bert, her late husband, up the wall occasionally. (Considering before I read your post, I didn't even know she had a perfectionist streak or had been married--this is fun!)