It’s all in the details…but what kind?

I recently read The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton and was struck by her poetic prose. She describes places, not in great detail, but in great imagery. This is how she places readers in a museum:

“The Victoria and Albert Museum stood large and imposing before her, the cloak of afternoon shadow sliding rapidly across its stone front. A giant mausoleum of the past…[t]housands of items, out of time and place, reverberating quietly with the joys and traumas of forgotten lives.”

Rather than giving us a laundry-list of the contents of the museum, or even a description of what the character saw and encountered as she arrived at the museum, we get a quick poetic snapshot and then go right back to the action of the novel. Personally, I had no difficulty picturing the atmosphere even though the description completely skirts any kind of concrete details.

I’ve been to museums, but none like the V&A, and some readers would probably find the description lacking since it leaves a good deal to the imagination. Is everything behind glass, or just behind velvet rope and stanchions, the museum equivalent of the police “do not cross” tape? Morton doesn’t inform us, but she doesn’t have to; the novel isn’t set in a museum. She is an atmospheric writer, and her details are focused on building that atmosphere (and for me, as a reader, it worked).

This made me wonder about the amount of details a good book should supply. Some writers seem to be atmospheric and poetic while others are much more definitive and concrete. Contrast the above with how Tom Clancy describes his character’s entrance to CIA headquarters in The Hunt for Red October:

“Ryan walked down the corridor on the top floor of the Langley, Virginia, headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency. He had already passed through three separate security checks, none of which had required him to open his locked briefcase, now draped under the folds of his buff-colored toggle coat, a give from an officer in the Royal Navy…The office of the deputy director for intelligence occupied a whole corner of the top floor, overlooking the tree-covered Potomac Valley.”

When we finally reach the office, we are likewise informed of its contents, from the person reclining in a “high-backed judge’s chair reading through a folder” to the “oversized mahogany desk…covered with neat piles of folders whose edges were covered with red tape and whose covers bore various code words.” We are told what the main character wears and what he sees and experiences as we go along, and the action has to wait until the description is finished.

The genres are very different, of course, as are the audiences; Morton’s work was classified as “Women’s fiction” while Clancy is probably read predominately by men, but some women’s fiction can be just as descriptive as Clancy when it comes to clothes and locations (like Georgette Heyer’s historical fiction, for example) and some men, like Dickens, could write just as atmospherically as Morton.

There seems to be little or no rule of how much description one should include. Everyone says that details matter, of course, but though some try to give us rules on the subject, I think it ultimately is a matter of taste, because books and readers vary. Some like all the detail that Clancy gives and others prefer to read abridged versions of his works. Some skim through paragraphs of description because it “does nothing for them” while others read each line and create a mental picture of where things are taking place. Ultimately, I think there is no right or wrong amount because authors have been successful and enjoyable at all ends of the spectrum.

I’d love to hear some feedback on this from other readers. How much description do you like in a book? Do you prefer the scientific or the atmospheric? Or maybe the nonexistent? All of the above?

2 thoughts on “It’s all in the details…but what kind?

  1. I’ve always thought that the essence of good writing is getting the picture that is in the writer’s mind into the mind of the individual reading the writing. So the question for the writer might be: How much of what I see do I want my reader to see? Do I want them to see “exactly” what I see, or do I want to allow my reader to bring their own experience or interpretation to what I write and “see”? Therefore, the amount of details depends on the author and what they want to “share” in their story.

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    1. Great point! However, I think some writers don’t see the surroundings of the characters at all times, if at all. At that point it becomes less about sharing what you know with your readers as doing more exploring yourself to come up with the details…which brings us back to the question of how much details are necessary to make an enjoyable reading experience.

      If only a little will do, it makes writing easier for non-visual authors, as they won’t have to invent details that don’t organically come to them.

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