Help! I'm drowning! Or: How much detail is too much?
In fiction, details convey credibility -- but can there be TOO much detail? Personally -- as both a reader and writer -- I say yes. Not all details are created equal.
Take MOBY DICK (please!). Like most of us, I read “The Great American Novel” in school. Like most of us, I recall little beyond "Call me Ishmael." What I do remember is more from the abridged but vivid 1956 movie (starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab). Like most of us, I never read the book again.
But my friend Ross Lally did. His impression: Herman Melville wrote two books -- one about Ahab's obsessive pursuit of the white whale, the other a 19th-century whaling text -- and smooshed them together. So the plot sails along, until -- bang! -- long detours about whales and whaling. Even done seamlessly, would less have been more?
Prepping for my first historical novel, GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE , I did 6 months of research into the time period (1845-1875) -- collecting waaay more detail than I could (or should) use. To whittle down that bounty, I asked 2 questions: 1) What would my characters know? 2) What does a reader NEED to know?
I think fiction has more impact and intimacy when readers see through the eyes of characters, not authors. It’s not the writer’s job to dazzle with vast amounts of scintillating research -- just ‘cuz you found it doesn’t mean you have to use it! Details should be included if they either orient a reader in time and place; or illuminate characters’ lives by affecting what they do, and how and why they do it.
For instance: I knew very little about 19th century firearms. So I learned a lot -- and discarded most of it. The risk of writing “gear porn” -- lovingly-excruciating but ultimately incidental minutiae on a given topic -- is that readers who already know it don’t need it, and readers who don’t know probably don’t care, especially if the digression bogs down the story.
When it came to guns, a few things mattered. The typical six-shooter popular in western movies and TV wasn’t available until after 1873. Civil War-era black-powder revolvers didn’t use the familiar, pre-made metallic-cartridge ammunition, so they were slow and difficult to load. Repeating rifles weren’t widely available until post-Civil War; the single-shot muzzle-loader muskets used by both sides required soldiers to stand up in order to reload -- less than ideal in battle. And the gunpowder of the time produced a great deal of smelly smoke.
I used those facts because they shaped the story. My narrator Jamey Galloway has a visceral wariness of firearms, and he questions the wisdom of standing up to reload a musket when you’re being shot at by the enemy. His older brother Jake is a marksman adept with weapons. And all that musket fire could turn even a minor skirmish into smoke-blind chaos. The details I chose sculpt the characters, in turn influencing their actions (and attitudes) that forge the story. A selective dash of the right details can season your recipe -- a deluge can spoil the broth.