Spare Me the Details.

Get to the point! How many times have you been listening to someone relating an incident and your ears are nearly bursting at all the trivial detail? 

The story progresses at a snail’s pace and you’re being treated to every little bit of who said what, word for word. “He said yes so I said no then he said yes really and I said no kidding…” Agh! Enough said! Then there’s all the background information that goes back almost as far as prehistoric times. I’m almost expecting a woolly mammoth to walk into the scene, though I wouldn’t mind that so much because it might provide a welcome bit of interest at least. And to top it off, there are volumes of opinion, often ill-informed, on every little development in the story.
Sometimes I get so tuned-out that I find myself nodding and mmming in all the wrong places until the other person ends up saying “Are you listening to me?” Usually I reassure them I am listening (manners, thanks Mum) but I wish I had the honesty to say “Nope! I just can’t hang in there. However your story ends, I’m past caring.”
It’s the same with a lot of books and short stories, I find. It’s often why I abandon a book after a few chapters, even if it comes highly recommended by a well-respected reviewer or made it to the Man Booker shortlist. Some of those reviewers and Booker judges must have an assurance of a really long life with not a lot of work on their plate, I reckon. As for me, life’s too short and way too busy to persist with heaps of unnecessary details.
I was grateful to the friend who recommended I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Even more than that, I was grateful to him for telling me to persist past the first six chapters because, however much I wanted to give up, it would be worth it. He was right, it was one if the best stories I’ve ever read. Though I know quite a few readers who gave up on the book before the story really took off. So I don’t understand why those first six chapters couldn’t have been edited down to one really good chapter with just the essentials to kick-start the story. Perhaps the publishers were worried no one would buy such a slim book. But I would have. And I would’ve appreciated being spared all those unnecessary details.
Someone – don’t ask me who, I’m not good with details like that – anyway, someone said that reading a story with too many unimportant details is like receiving a letter that has been beautifully written but a small child has scribbled all over it. The meaning is in there somewhere but it’s all too much work to get to it.
Details can get in the way of a story, they can hinder it’s forward movement. And goodness knows we all like to feel we’re getting somewhere rather than just jogging on the spot. By details, I mean anything from a single word to a phrase to a whole scene. It can be description, backstory, context, action or dialogue.
 When I’m writing, I have to remind myself constantly that not everything in my head needs to make it onto the page. I ask myself two questions to keep the details to a minimum. First, I ask myself whether the reader really needs to know this particular detail. If not, I cross it out. Then I ask myself if the story would still stand on it’s feet if I omitted this detail. If the story is not about to suffer then I cross it out. I probably don’t cross out as much as I should but those two questions really help keep a lot of unnecessary details out of my stories. I’m pretty sure the stories are better for it and, I hope, better for the reader.

7 thoughts on “Spare Me the Details.

  1. Hmm – interesting given that I recently finished a Robin Hobbs book – slow moving BUT I loved and appreciated the detail that others may have found grindingly boring. It was contextually relevant to the type of story. If the story was purely about moving deformed dragons upstream, then it was too slow by far. But it isn’t. It’s about the social milieu as well – in a sort of Austin-ish or Dickensian fashion. I loved the very thorough inner dialogue and perspective of each character – dense and rich like an extravagant tapestry.
    I have likewise read books where the action has left me feeling like an outsider instead of fully drawn into the story, and recently I figured out that sometimes when that happens it’s due to loss of point of view (which made me really excited because it’s been irking me that really good writers can love me like that from time to time, and I wanted to understand why!)
    So – I guess it’s very much a matter of story type/genre and also what works for individual readers. That said – if anything can be said if fewer words, Do it! it’s a balancing art.
    I think the other important point is to weave the detail into character observations, thoughts, dialogue, actions – anything but pure description, wherever possible.

    • Yes, I do think different styles of writing appeal to different readers. Different genres also seem to have a different approach to the amount of detail included. And then there are some stories that are so good they seem to be able to sustain a greater density in the writing style. It certainly is a tricky balance.

  2. This is so true. I often don’t make it past the first chapter because the writer has become so bogged down in too many trivial details. As they say, less is more, and this certainly applies to stories.

  3. thanks Jacqui…..btw…you werént talking about me blathering on when I tell a story……..anyway just thought I”d say that while I think you are right regarding padding and detail I think we should also keep in mind that a good story is also multi layered and a story can seem thin without the requisite building of context. That’s why I disagree re Life of Pi….I think those early chapters were integral in establishing the depth of the story that followed and allowed the reader an invaluable glimpse into what made Pi tick. Without them the impact of the story would have been lost. Remember the premise right from the start was …here is a story that will make you believe in God.
    Anyway, thats my thought and I may be a little biased towards Pi as it is one of my truly favourite novels….however I did think Martells follow up was a bit of a stinker. Hope your well
    ps did a rewrite of Elvis the Eel ….. still looking for publishing

    • Funny you should say that Tony, since you were the one who told me to persist through the first few chapters if Pi. Maybe you know me too well and you knew I’d be impatient for the story to take off. I do agree with you that the early chapters have some indispensable moments that inform the rest of the story, particularly the ending. But I still think there are no prizes for saying anything the long way around.

      I hope Elvis finds a good home soon. And as for blathering – you? Never!

  4. More great advice to keep us on the straight and narrow. Thanks, Jacqui.
    Though I have a story to tell, I also have a bunch of Young Adults to entertain. I often find myself veering off simply for the sake of a bit of fun, for me and for my readers. I think there’s a lot to be said for entertainment value too. I love how the YA genre allows me to do that. 🙂

    • Gary, when you veer off it’s always more than just entertaining. All those funny little incidents tell the reader more about your main character, young Billy, and most importantly they show the reader about Billy’s own culture and how he’s coming to terms with a new culture. None of it is unnecessary detail – you just have a talent for telling it in a very amusing way. Keep on writing those Urban Hunters stories – it’s not just the young adults that enjoy them!

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