Monday, September 21, 2015

How much detail is enough?

I thought I had recently discussed under- and over-explaining but if I did, I cannot easily find it.  A post from two years ago at helpingwritersbecomeauthors looked into the subject and someone (Added later:  That someone is Writer's Edit on Twitter) mentioned it on Twitter recently.

The author of the piece mentions two common reasons for under- or over- explaining; the author knowing too much or too little about the subject and imagining the audience is in a similar position.  I feel she didn't go into a problem I have with style or awkwardness in shoehorning the material in.  I might hold back on detail that I think should be there simply because my characters wouldn't discuss or think about such things. When the author and the character know the subject well and there is no naive individual to explain things to, what can you do?

From last year's Nanowrimo entry:
At breakfast, servings of Dahl-bat on thick ceramic, Kasher met Gore, the secretary.  "Good morning.  How's your breakfast?" he asked.
Rather more reserved out of his superior's eye, Gore was still polite.  "It'll do.  I'd prefer eggs and bacon." - Or perhaps not so polite.

How is Gore possibly being rude?  A partial explanation below.
not yet.
Okay.  another excerpt, one that comes before the one above:
"The men were talking about that.  The Sir asked for an appropriate meal tonight to make you comfortable.  What's it like, being Jewish?"
Taken aback, but a lifelong educator, he responded with his own question, "Well, where are you from?  You are, uh, dressed like the Mountain Gorkas" and not much cleaner, really, "but you seems a little pale."
"I grew up in India, in Lucknow but my parents, I am told, were European."
Kasher felt some warning signs and didn't press for details. "Then you have seen the castes.  In many ways, Jews are untouchables.  We might be needed but are seldom welcome.  But many of us are well educated and can be useful."
So, discussing eating bacon with a Jew.  Possibly slightly rude.  Does it matter that the two excerpts are 23 paragraphs apart?  Is Kasher's concern obvious or still obvious?

Am I overly concerned about this? Is my description of Jewish life so far off that you now think I'm anti-Semitic?

More often in my story, I show a character making a decision, then a few paragraphs later offer at least some of the explanation.

I find that Nanowrimo sometimes encourages extra detail and explanation when one is having trouble deciding where to go next.  Word count is word count and unnecessary words still qualify.

Added later:
This evening I was listening to a few songs on Youtube and two stood out for me.  The first is one of the best known songs in the world, "You're so vain" by Carly Simon.  Wiki details here.

Apropos of this post, why Saratoga?  Why go to Nova Scotia?  These details add to the mystery and continue to this day to fuel a search for the Vain one.  We have since learned that the apricot scarf belonged to Nick Delbanco but others are also described.

Later, I listened to the far less known Cinderella (trying not to scream) by Doug and the Slugs, one of the last recordings they made.  The song starts with what I consider typical couple-broken-up lyrics:
"When we first met, there was the sound of music and the streets were all paved with gold. And fact and fiction began to collide and the love letters all turned cold."
Followed by this very specific detail.:
"She sits in the window of a haunted house where the walls are all painted green."
Why green?  She's trying not to scream which makes me think of she might be in an asylum, are such walls green?  Suddenly, I wonder if there is more import to the gold streets.
My high opinion of Doug Bennett is a minority one and perhaps all the lyrics were used only for the way they fit and not keys to a specific location....

I'm rambling.  both songs seem to have an ideal amount of detail, enough to set you wondering.

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