Let’s start with some vague, useless advice for writers: Show, don’t tell.
Charles Dickens, at the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, wrote, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light—” Now if he had known enough to take this book to a writing critique group, someone could have said, “Hold it, Charlie, hold on. You’re telling us, dude. Show us how it was the best of times. Did people have big houses? And this age of wisdom thing. Like what? Were they making scientific discoveries, finding new moons?”
Aside from the fact that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is so abstract as to squat dumb in the corner, one of the aspects of writing that writers must frequently deal with (perhaps constantly deal with) is how much detail to give.
If I say, for instance, “The attractive woman sitting at the bar turned and looked at the man who had come in”—that sentence can be sort of interesting with its implications. But what if I say “The woman sitting at the bar, with a silk scarf around her neck, turned and looked at the man who had come in.” Does that detail with the scarf make it more interesting? Or what about “The woman sitting at the bar, wearing a silk scarf, turned and looked at the man, a slight smile crossing her face.” Is it more interesting, or does it not matter?
How much detail is right? Would it be even better to know that the bar stool where she is sitting has a back to it, that the bartender is a bald man with a diamond earring, and that the man who just came in is shaking the water off an umbrella? Do you need to know that the woman is from St. Louis, that she’s 42 years old, and her hair is dark brown? How much is enough?
This week I finished a chapter I’ve been working on for the current novel, and I’m pulling out a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of deciding how much detail to use.
In one part I have a man and woman go into the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. That’s the one designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, where the walkway spirals round and round the open center, so that you can walk from the lobby up about four or five stories. Here are possible details I could have used in describing that: the curve of the walkway around the space, the white painted interior, the vault of the ceiling, the giant glass skylight looking like a huge spider’s web, other people in the museum, the crowding, the ticket desk, the sounds of people talking, the cost of a ticket, particular paintings on the walls.
After the Guggenheim Museum, I had the couple walk about a block into Central Park, where they went up some stairs to look at the reservoir, a large lake surrounded by trees, a fairly surprising sight when you’ve just come off the helter skelter of Fifth Avenue. Here are possible details I might have used for that description: the path, trees on the other shore, standing under similar trees, size of the trees, kind of trees, other people passing by , the weather, the view of buildings on the other side, clouds or birds or planes in the sky, the wide expanse of water, light reflecting off the water.
In both instances, I used the details in italics above, but not the others. Would the writing be better with more details? I don’t know, but I had a reason for limiting them, as I wanted to move the chapter along, to keep a sense of something happening with the characters, so I didn’t want the writing to slow down into long descriptions of New York.
Part of the basis for my decision about detail was the context of how I wanted the writing to move at that point, the feeling I wanted in the scene. It was not necessary for the reader to see the Guggenheim very much, as it was the third museum my characters had been in, but the lake in Central Park was in contrast to what we had just been reading about. I wanted the reader to really see the lake and feel that contrast, so I used more description.
How much detail is enough? There is no answer. It is always a guess.