Too much, or too little?

One thing that always runs through my mind is, am I over- or under-describing? I want to keep the intrigue and suspense, but I also want to demonstrate how well I’ve built my world. So where is the balance? One rule I always keep in my mind is that old chestnut, “show don’t tell.” So we want to be able to allow the reader to experience the world we build rather than tell them what happened. This is the power of written fiction to me really as opposed to say film or even comics, where the action is all presented to you. I don’t mean it’s better, or even that there is no room for interpretation in film, I just mean that in written format, everyone experiences it differently. What does Sherlock Holmes actually look like? Arthur Conan Doyle describes his appearance in great detail, but my mind interpreted that and thus my Holmes is unique in my own mind. Of course, making the reader do all of the work is unfair and there are situations where you may want to break out of a certain idiom for ease of narrative or flow.

In showing though there are various degrees of narrative to which one can subscribe. There are plenty of examples of fiction where, after finishing, I’ve felt like I haven’t really grasped what was going on. Now that can be a good thing, leaving questions unanswered, or it can be detrimental to the feel of the piece. A nice example of a story that doesn’t give too much away is a short story I recently read in Clarkesworld magazine by Aliette de Bodard entitled “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”. I shan’t spoil it for you but it just does enough to tickle the fancy and leave you wanting to know more about the world. I like that approach, especially in short fiction.

Conversely, I have recently finished reading all of the current “Song of Fire and Ice” series by George R. R. Martin, where Martin takes the opposite approach. Over the course of these five mammoth tomes, Martin attempts to describe his lands of Westeros and Essos in such minute detail, sometimes it takes a lot of effort to follow the plots. This started to get a bit tiresome for me by the fourth book, but I think the world he has crafted is done justice by the approach. Concentrating on one character at a time for each chapter means he’s ended up with something like thirty, very well crafted characters. Somehow though, he’s still left enough room for manoeuvre and uncertainty for the reader to make up their own mind about them. Hats off for that. It’s certainly something I aspire to be able to do as I develop.

I’m currently struggling however, with a Robert Jordan book, “The Eye of the World.” I love the world he has created again, and the mythology is deeply textured and rich. However, he has an awful habit – at least thus far – of reiterating character traits to absolute distraction for me. The book, so far, has concentrated on a group of seven individuals, who’s characteristics were initially very well described and they are now set in my mind, and yet a quarter of the way into the book, he’s still hammering home things that could have been implied, without the extra explanation. It’s like he’ll show you something, then explain what it was then clarify why he did it, all in two sentences and it can get very tiring. Tolkien does the same sort of thing. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing by any means, just that it tires me out a bit. I guess this is an extreme example though of what I mean.

So, what have I concluded? Not a lot. Just to pay extra attention to how much I give away and when. Don’t overwhelm the reader with heavy visuals, let them piece it together themselves. Oh, and trust my readers, yes this is my baby, but I need to let them see it through their own eyes, not mine.

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One thought on “Too much, or too little?”

  1. I always go for under describing. Describing locations by the little things characters notice; a smell, a feel, a sound. Character descriptions I leave to similar small little details. Not what their hair style is, but how they might brush a stray lock of hair at certain moments. And their dialogue, give them a voice and let the reader do most of the work.

    Will be different for fantasy, though, because a little more world building is needed. But i think the key to world building is not to show how crazy and exotic a world you can build, but how the world is relatable to the reader. How is it alike and how is it different.

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