How Detailed Is Enough?

Many, many years ago, I wrote occasional reviews for a semi-noted SF&SF magazine… until I got into an argument with one of the editors about some details in a book. Two of those details stand out in my memory. In one case, the protagonist was using dental mirrors to look around corners, except dental mirrors aren’t that good for looking any distance. Bicycle mirrors would have been much better. The second detail was an address. The author placed a stylish town house in Georgetown on a street in the middle of an area that has been exclusively commercial since at least the 1950s [and the novel was set in the 1980s], and where such stylish dwellings have not existed for decades. And the book wasn’t alternate history, but supposedly set contemporaneously.

Now, I didn’t trash the book in my proposed review, but I gave those two examples and several others and said that the author’s lack of attention to detail detracted from the overall quality and that while it was a good book, it wasn’t a great book. The editor said that he couldn’t publish the review unless I removed the specifics. He didn’t dispute the accuracy of my observations; he just didn’t want them in the review, and I got the feeling that he really wanted me to be more enthusiastic about the book.

That was the last review I ever wrote.

Obviously, as my readers know, I like details. And I try like hell to make them realistic and relevant to the story. Some readers suggest I go overboard with details, but to me, at least the main streets in books should have names, unless the town is as small as Haven and only has one main street. Bricks come in a range of colors, but those colors are determined by the local clays, which means that bricks in a given town, especially a small town, are likely to be of the same color and shade. The kind of roofs a town has should reflect the economy and the climate.

Likewise, music in lower-tech cultures tends to be based on percussion or rhythm and rhyme because non-rhymed, non-rhythmic lyrics are difficult to remember. That’s why I get irritated when writers put down what are supposedly ballads or folk tune lyrics that seem to have neither rhyme, meter, nor rhythm.

And then there’s money. EVERY culture has a medium of exchange, and even in this day and age, it’s amazing how many books never even mention what that medium might be.

Not every street needs a name, nor does every dwelling need to be described, nor every transaction counted out… but lack of detail makes a book a generic throw-away- after-reading, and too much detail makes it a throw-away-before-finishing. And, of course, each reader has his or her threshold of what is too much or too little detail.

But…as the old saying goes, the devil’s in the details.

4 thoughts on “How Detailed Is Enough?”

  1. Sam says:

    Without knowing more I probably would have given the house detail a pass. For myself it seems like something that would not be general knowledge to readers and unlikely on it’s own to detract from the quality of the work.

    I’m an Australian and don’t even know where Georgetown is though. Hang on…I do now thanks to an internet search.

    I suppose in general I give fictional addresses a pass. Such as 221B Baker street which couldn’t have existed at the time.

    The dental mirror is a detail that I agree could have been better thought out by the author.

  2. Daze says:

    For me, anything that stops me from following the flow of the story while I think: “hang on, that can’t be right?” is a problem. I want to be there with the characters (and to care what happens to them, but that’s another subject). If I’m dumped back into thinking about something else, no flow. And if there’s more than a couple of those moments, I stop reading.

  3. JakeB says:

    I find as I’ve gotten older my intolerance for lack of thought in writers keeps growing. I think the most frequent trigger now is the villain whose first (and only) reaction to all disagreements or threats is to attempt to murder the person he interacts with. Okay, if you have a very stupid villain, that works, but when he’s, say, also the head or even the employee of an extremely successful organization the only solution he can ever think of is to kill everyone in his way?
    No doubt this solution it provides more action, but my reaction is “Moron!” and back the book goes to the library. Or even into the recycle bin if I myself was dumb enough to have bought it.
    My rant here is because I see it as the same problem as Mr. Modesitt describes, a laziness & lack of thought on the part of the author that leads to those flaws in the created world.

  4. Ryan Jackson says:

    I believe Daze covers it best. While the specific details might not bother an individual (example, Sam’s not knowing the neighborhood for the house to be out of place) it’s whenever something is sloppy enough that people who know just glitch.

    An example for me was in the last season of Game of Thrones. While many got hung up over the too fast pacing or plot points they didn’t like, I was dragged out of the story in episode 3. The entire “War” was so poorly thought out on both sides that I just couldn’t pay attention to the plot. We send Light Cavalry alone into darkness to die, we put pike troops in front of a moat in front of a defensible wall for a siege? We guard the “bait” with only archers and no shield or other troops of any kind? It all just completely broke my ability to follow it.

    That’s the rub, if the reader can instantly come up with a different answer or a better solution to a situation then the author hasn’t done enough research or thought enough about the situation they’re writing.

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