Mark Terry

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Devil's In The Details

December 10, 2008
Writing, we're to believe, is all about choices. I've been reading more SF this year, and although I like it, sometimes, by necessity, the SF writer goes crazy with their world-building. I mean, you've got a soldier attacking a planet of aliens, and in order to understand what's going to happen next, not only do they have to describe the alien, but the planet, its culture, its religions, and pretty soon, you're buried in three pages of exposition and you forgot that the main character is falling through the atmosphere with a blaster on his back ready to kick some alien ass.

I tend to like my fiction a little spare anyway. No reason to spend pages describing the texture of a kangaroo's pelt, after all. I know what they look like and if you say it's "coarse and brown" I got it. I've read some military thrillers recently for my judging for the Thriller Award, and I'm not really sure I give a damn when two characters go on and on about the strengths and weaknesses of various firearms under various conditions, but I suspect that the fans of this particular subgenre do. So that's a factor, for sure. What are the demands of the genre? No romantic love scene would be complete if it wasn't over-described. I remember reading a Heather Graham novel which I liked reasonably well, but I almost fell off the couch laughing during the love scene because the writing got so sort of cliched and, er, lush. But that's just me, I suppose.

I thought I'd grab a couple books off the shelf and give examples and see what you think. Too much detail? Not enough? Just right?

From: Bag of Bones by Stephen King (Horror)
"I ran my palm over one of the insulated squares. Smooth. I pushed a finger at it, and although I didn't push with any real force, my finger left a dimple in the silvery surface. Easy as pie. If someone had been thumping a fist down here, this stuff should be pitted, the thin silver skin perhaps even broken to reveal the pink fill underneath. But all the squares were smooth."

From: The Ghost Brigades by John Scalzi (SF)
"At roughly the size of St. Peter's Basilica, the Hierarch's Palace was no small edifice, and outside the main hall where the hierarch held formal court and the now-shattered administrative wing, no non-Eneshans were allowed to enter. There were no architectural plans of the palace in the public record, and the palace itself, constructed in the fluid and chaotically natural Eneshan architectural style that resembled nothing so much as a series of termite mounds, did not lend itself to easy discovery of significant areas or rooms. Before the plan to kidnap the Eneshan heir could be put into action, it had to be discovered where the heir's private chambers lay. Military Research considered it a pretty puzzle, but one without a lot of time to be solved."

From: The Seventh Sacrament by David Hewson (Suspense)
"Pietro had stayed the night at the villa. He looked a little the worse for wear. So did Raffaella; Emily had retired to a corner with a coffee and a newspaper after a brief conversation with them, an exchange of pleasantries, a question about Emily's health, a mutual sharing of observations about the predictable nature of men. In spite of the commotion in the Questura, Falcone had never phoned. Nor had he returned Raffaella's call when, in desperation, she had attempted to reach him around two. Emily had tried to tell her he'd be busy. It hadn't cut much ice. It hadn't deserved to."

Granted, context may be everything. Hewson's all exposition, and it's a transitional paragraph anyway. No dialogue, it's all described. He's moving on to other things, but apparently the material is relevant,  perhaps to identify what all the characters are doing prior to them doing something significant. I picked this paragraph at random and haven't read the book, but Hewson's writing tends to be filled with detail and description, partly because he's writing about Rome or Florence.

Scalzi's characters are about to embark on a huge battle and there are political elements as well, so he's trying to give a sense of what they're facing without providing overwhelming detail. That paragraph works reasonably well, I think, but it goes on for quite a bit longer as he describes the culture of the Eneshans, which is necessary to understand what's going on, but drove me a little crazy when I read it, because it was all background and new background at that. But in that the main characters encounter dozens of alien species and cultures during the course of the book, it would be rather hard to weave the details of the Eneshans into earlier parts of the novel without hopelessly confusing the reader. Welcome to SF.

King's character thinks there's a ghost down in the cellar and it's knocking once for yes and twice for no on the insulation, and when he turns on the light he's studying the insulation to see if it shows a mark. I actually think, as King's writing goes, that this is remarkably restrained.

I also note the use of cliches, which surprised me: "easy as pie" in King's cases, and "cuts no ice" in Hewson's. I don't see any notable cliches in Scalzi's paragraph, but I'm struck by the relative awkwardness of "it had to be discovered" in terms of sentence structure and glaring passive tense. Oh well.

What do you think?

Mark Terry


Blogger Jude Hardin said...

In my own work I like to think of details as one of my spices, while action and dialogue are the meat and potatoes.

7:48 AM  
Blogger Davin C. Goodwin said...

My problem is that I'm afraid of putting too much detail into my work.

This concern has probably made my work a little sparse. I'm trying to correct it, but I get nervous...

Too much second guessing; " this REALLY needed?"

11:18 AM  
Blogger Zoe Winters said...

I'm also with you on "spare writing."

I like to "get to the point." Though right now I'm really enjoying a family saga by a friend of mine that's over 700 pages. And in a compact font. I'll never get through it, lol. But I LOVE it.

Though she doesn't meander; she keeps it moving.

11:36 AM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I'm probably too spare, and I often try to flesh out because I feel I should.

But someone told me not to write the parts I skip. I tried reading those passages three times, and I couldn't get myself to.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Obviously different strokes...

As Jude says, it's like spice. Sometimes you like spicy Thai, sometimes turkey and mashed potatoes.

The word verification is: statici


12:36 PM  
Blogger sex scenes at starbucks said...

I try to pick out the one or three really important bits and leave the rest up to the reader's imagination. Hell, they're not paying me that much for the book. They can do some work too!

word ver: ration.

double hmmm

3:23 PM  
Blogger brianawr[b]ites said...

My problem is I don't put enough details, and too much dialogue.

I like Kings details the best. Because I just understood it with a snap. The others, not so much.

3:36 PM  
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