Sunday, October 28, 2018

THE DEVIL'S IN THE DETAILS by Cheryl Pierson



There’s an old saying that “the devil’s in the details” that’s true in many circumstances in life, but I think it’s especially true in all forms of art.

Of course, it’s obvious to us in visual art—paintings, drawings, photography—and tactile art such as a beautiful quilt or piece of pottery, or a woven basket.




Hexagon Quilt--selling for over $6000! But look at the work and the detail that went into this "work of art"!

But what about books? Are you a reader who loves lots of descriptive details? Or do those bog you down and leave you frustrated and impatient?

I have to admit, as I’ve gotten older, there are many kinds of stories that I feel could do with less detail in some areas. A lot of my "changes" come from looking at the way details and descriptions are presented more closely when I read. I’ve evolved into this kind of reader.

As a younger reader, I needed those details to help me create images in my mind. The descriptions were beautiful to me because I knew less of the world, and everything I read was a learning experience! Have you ever thought about it like that?

When I was a YA reader, whether reading sci-fi books (during the flying saucer craze) or historical fiction, I needed those descriptions and details to feed my hunger for learning about—well, everything!

I loved this series by John Christopher--read it when I was about 12 or 13, and it stayed with me all through the years so that when my own kids were young, I went searching and found it for them! The descriptions of the aliens that were determined to take over earth, the bravery of the young people that fought against them, and wondering what in the world was going to happen kept me reading far into the night!


“Back in the day” I think authors engaged readers with a different type of writing style, too. Ours had not yet become a world of technology such as it is now. Life “took longer”—and happened at a much more unhurried pace. It was important for writers to create pictures in the readers’ minds—because there was no way to already have a pre-conceived idea of the things the author was trying to describe.

Here’s what I mean: In today’s world, we are inundated with images of all kinds, from instant pictures on our phones that we take ourselves, to movies, to ads on television, to video on Youtube. And so much more—this is just the tip of the iceberg.

One of my very favorite paintings by the very fabulous Jack Sorenson. This one is called "Horse With Christmas Spirit"--love the "details" in this one!

Can you see how this de-values art? When a beautiful picture can be photoshopped together in minutes and seen by millions, or even mass produced in ways that hadn’t been thought of fifty years ago, the artist who painstakingly delivers every brush stroke “the old-fashioned way” can be under-appreciated in a hurry!

Some writers suffer this same twist of fate in a different way. Because our lives are so rushed, and our society has been geared toward “quick reads” we’ve lost the pleasure of savoring those descriptions of the setting, the characters, even the emotions of the “players” in the books we read. It seems that finishing a book is more important than, as we once did, lingering over certain passages and re-reading them for the sheer joy of the way the words came together, the image they created for our hungry minds—and souls.

I realize, for my part, not needing as much detail and description in my reading of some material is because I’m older. I’ve read more, seen more, and (hopefully) know more—so certain things don’t have to be described to me in as much detail every time.

My confession—and you may all think this is weird—I do not ever skim. Even when I don’t feel the need for the minutiae that may be included, I read every word. What if I miss something? Deep down, I believe the author must have thought it important or he/she wouldn’t have included it!

What’s your pet peeve? Too much description? Not enough? More description needed of the characters? Or do you want some things left to your own imagination?

One does a whole painting for one peach and people think just the opposite - that particular peach is but a detail.
--Pablo Picasso

I learned no detail was too small. It was all about the details.
--Brad Grey

Sometimes when you start losing detail, whether it's in music or in life, something as small as failing to be polite, you start to lose substance.
--Benny Goodman


Do you remember a book you’ve read that you thought was too detailed? IS there such a thing? I think many of the authors from the earlier days wrote in that style—it was just how it was done—and there was no mass media to show instant pictures, so there was even so much more to learn through reading.


As one who wrote very descriptive passages, James Fenimore Cooper comes to mind, but Diana Gabaldon’s books are full of wonderful descriptions of the landscape, the characters, and so on, and that skill she displays for description makes her stories and characters come to life!

For modern-day books that show a complete mastery of adding wonderful detail and pulling you into the story, there is no better author than Kathleen Eagle. I've never read a story by her that I didn't love and one of the main reasons is the adept talent she has for adding the smallest details as the story moves along and drawing the reader right into each and every scene, as if you are truly there with her characters, experiencing their pain, loss, worry, and love.
Do you have a favorite author who gives just the right amount of description? More about this next time on CHARACTER descriptions--I've been doing a lot of thinking on this subject!

8 comments:

  1. Cheryl,

    For me, it depends upon the genre I'm reading. For fantasy and sci-fi, I'm okay with lots of description so I can be comfortable in the world the author created. For contemporaries, I don't need - or want - as much. For historically based stories, I think it's a function of familiarity of the historical time period.

    My favorite book is "The Mists of Avalon" by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Her details and description in her version of the King Arthur legend are practically as perfect as Mary Poppins. *wink*

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    1. Oh, Kaye, I love that book so much. The Mists of Avalon was just such a breakthrough for me. I remember when I read it so many years ago and I had the conscious thought that this book was so wonderful and it was written by a WOMAN. And I guess I thought about it like that because every other Arthurian legends book I'd ever read was written by a MAN. Anyhow, it was an eye-opener for me. And you are so right about the details. I think I might need to go back and re-read that one--it's been a while. Loved that book!

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  2. Yes, a person can get caught up in research/details, because in historicals there are so many neat things to include. I remember reading about Diana Gabaldan lugging an armload of books home from the library ane ended up writing a 1200 page first book. I wondered if mine would stand a chance? But I shortened it from 900+ to 595 pages and that hurt. That was in the 90's and thirty years later the trend seems to be for much shorter books, less detail, more action. Is this Hollywood's influence? Or the electronic age of iPods and Kindle? People are just in too much of a hurry to get to "the end" quickly instead of enjoying the words, the rhythm at a slower pace. I especially see how much writing has changed when I dip into my library of classics. It takes forever for the narrator to get "to the story" in A Tale of Two Cities, or the Canterbury Tales, to cite two examples. Yet a Daphne du Maurier or Mary Stewart book is spellbinding and they, too, come from another age. Even Harlequins have changed over the years. Less details means a shorter book. Some genre just need more details because of world-building. I look forward to more posts, Cheryl, especially the one on character description.

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    1. Elizabeth, I do believe our world has changed so much that the instant gratification has become detrimental to readers' ways of enjoying the books that have more details and take longer to get to the story. Like you say, there are some books from different ages that are so wonderful and written in different styles, that are just as spellbinding as those that were written before or after--it depends on the genre, the style, and the reader's attitude. We have to ask ourselves WHY do we read? To finish a lot of books quickly? To me, I don't care how long a book is, only that it holds my interest throughout the story. If it's a short book, I might love it just as much as a longer book that takes more time. I'm not one of those who has to finish a book in an hour or two to think of it as a "good" book. It depends on the story and what's in those pages that I'm reading, not the length of time it takes me to read it.

      Yes, I think a lot of it is Hollywood's influence, as you mentioned. We have gotten to the point where visualizing is so much quicker to do it by watching a movie than by reading the description and imagining it in our mind's eye. To me that is really, really sad.

      Thanks so much for stopping by. I always love to hear from you, Elizabeth!

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  3. Thank you, Cheryl, for a thought-provoking post. I agree with you and all the comments made about how times have changed in today's world for both authors as well as readers. One of my all time favorite authors whose talents for description I always admired, though sadly she's now retired, is Lavyrle Spencer. She had a unique way to describe characters, places and things often through the use of metaphors and similes that kept me entranced with the story. To me, her books can be read over and over!

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    1. Cheri, I agree. My favorite of hers so far is Morning Glory. That was one written in a time period I don't normally read but I could not put it down.

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  4. Always something to be cognizant of when writing. Too much, too little or ... I do think the genre and audience play a part in how much detail a writer includes. Some love lots of detail in historicals, but hate it in action. Thanks for firing up the brain cells. Doris

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    1. I agree, Doris. I think some people get aggravated if they're reading a western and you have to describe every little piece of the desert for instance. I think Louis L'Amour did a great job of "just enough"--I wish I was Louis L'Amour! LOL

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