I'll be the first to admit, I'm a pretty terse writer. My short stories always run very short, and the review I get most often is, "I liked the premise, but I really needed more details." If I know the characters are in a room on an ice planet and one has a gun and the other doesn't, then sometimes, that's all I really need to know.

At the other extreme, there's E.L. James, who will tell you exactly what her characters had for breakfast and what the vintage on the wine is and what her hero's cologne smells like. She spent around three paragraphs once just describing her heroine showering. (Here's a great recap of the 50SoG trilogy, if you're interested -- but fair warning, you will lose hours of your life to reading this and you will not get them back.) Her predecessor, Stephenie Meyer, has a similar tendency toward detail. At first I scoffed, but then my younger sister explained to me that when Twilight first came out, it was engrossing to her in part because she could empathize with the details of it. "Bella was doing the same science experiments I was doing, so I understood where she was coming from," she told me. A fascinating thought: that teenage girls were clamoring for these books not because they'd fallen for sparkly Edward Cullen, but because they, too, had studied mitosis. The detailed depiction of learning science, more than the gorgeous vampire, felt real and important and aroused their empathy.

How much detail is enough detail is a matter of personal taste, of course, but since James and Meyer are now bazillionaires and I'm living below the poverty line, I figure they've got something to teach me. So I'd like to kick off a weekly or semi-weekly discussion feature on this blog by asking, "What details help you to engage with a book? What details help you to empathize with the characters?"


10/24/2013 11:29

I think different kinds of detail can suit different purposes! When I'm trying to engage with a created world, for example, I like details that flesh it out and make it feel whole, as though there are more details that I'm not being told. Little offhanded references to its climate, for example, or the style in which one country's maps are drawn -- things that show me the world matters to the author.

Where character's concerned, though, I think it's hard to make everyone empathise with everything -- I don't know that there is such a thing as Universal Human Experience that a writer can tap into, though certainly some experiences are more common than others. I don't need E.L. James levels of detail, by any means; what I've read of 50SoG I found interminable!

For my part (though I am seriously not a pro writer) I think about the kinds of details that can be used to give a sense of development and change as things progress. It's probably really gauche to give examples from my own work, but I have a character who always takes cinnamon in her tea. Later in the story, the situation gets more dire, and she gets ill. She has to stop taking her tea that way because the cinnamon aggravates her coughing, and other characters notice because she was super picky about her tea before, and (hopefully?) there is an effect on the reader. But in the first instance, the detail is something quirky about the character -- not immediately plot-relevant, just something humanising (since this character is human, rather than tentacle monster ^_~) and maybe engaging.

...that got long. Sorry! I hope there is something of interest in there anyway.


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