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Thread: The Balance between Detail and Imagination.

  1. #1

    Question The Balance between Detail and Imagination.

    This seems to be something that I still have trouble with sometimes. I always want the reader to let their own imagination get rolling but sometimes I'm not sure how detailed I should have the scene be.

    For example -- if someone's sitting in a room, of course you should explain why he's in the room and what the room looks like at first glance, but you don't want a ten page written tour of the room talking about how many drapes the windows have and what kind of stain is on the coffee table.

    So what I want to know is how you balance the scale between detailing a scene and letting the reader paint the picture for themselves.

  2. #2
    I think I've learned to strike the balance by osmosis -- from years of reading. And with practice. It's not something I think about and I couldn't tell you how to do it in general terms if my life depended on it. I think it's something you have to learn by doing. There are no formulas.

  3. #3
    In my opinion, the first thing to remember is, the reader will always paint the picture for themselves. Once you understand that, you can get past trying to make the reader see exactly what you see in your head, and start making them get the mood, or impression you want to create. If the setting is important to the scene, then use words and descriptions which convey that importance. Do you want the setting to be cold and sterile because that's the nature of the character in it? Write about the flat, blue-white lighting, and surfaces as smooth as wet ice. Carefully chosen words, and snap-shot-like images can create an illusion of much greater detail.
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  4. #4
    Each character needs a touchstone: a defining detail that the reader can use to form an... Extra-nomial? (visual or otherwise) ...connection to the character. It's fine if a character has more than one, but it needs to be a fairly short list so that the reader can recall it quickly when it comes up in the text.

    Harry Potter: Scar, glasses.

    Long John Silver: Missing leg.

    Eddard Stark: Ice.

    There are, of course, several further considerations:

    1) Some characters actually exist to provide a proxy for the reader (or, in less fortunate cases, the author). These characters lack such a touchstone *intentionally.* Romance novel protagonists often fall into this category.

    2) The touchstone need not be a physical characteristic of the character, nor is it necessary that the touchstone be a characteristic of the character, per se. It can also be a tick or habit, or (as in the final case above) another entity with which the character is associated.

    If a character is going to have a touchstone, it should be introduced pretty damn quickly, because you can't retroactively add in details to a reader's mental picture. Either way, once this initial window of opportunity is closed, don't go adding in specific details: generalizations are all right, but (except in the case that you're reminding the reader about something you've mentioned previously, like in a later installment of a serial work), details should be avoided.

    Description beyond that is generally unhelpful.

    ===

    Further note: I am reminded of an exercise from a group I used to attend. A piece described a car in almost personal terms, mentioning, among other things, a bent wheel and rust. After those in attendance had read the piece, the instructor asked what color the car was.

    Everyone had an answer.

    The piece never mentioned the color of the car.

    ===

    Changed wording to reflect validity of non-sensory traits.
    Last edited by archer88iv; March 19th, 2013 at 07:25 PM.
    Don't take my advice personally. Also don't expect me to provide disclaimers like, "Just my opinion, but..." You should know that by now.

  5. #5
    Need?? There are bazillion characters in literature without a "touchstone" or any described characteristics.

  6. #6
    Quote Originally Posted by archer88iv View Post
    Each character needs
    I didn't read anything past the emboldened word. You could have made the most compelling argument in history and it wouldn't have mattered.
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  7. #7
    I know I have a touchstone -- it's my luxuriously thick and shiny hair.

  8. #8
    A bazillion. Can you actually name one?
    Don't take my advice personally. Also don't expect me to provide disclaimers like, "Just my opinion, but..." You should know that by now.

  9. #9
    Sure. Right now, I'm well into Philip Roth's Deception. So far, no "touchstones."

  10. #10
    From Amazon:

    Davies: Nothing notable
    Javits: "Red"
    Carlos: "Operator"
    Gyle: "Professional"
    Walsh: "President"
    Johnson: "Wealth, Seniority"
    Hunt: "Burnout"
    Ivanovich: "Butcher"

    I'm going to confess, Joseph, that I don't see anything notable in the Amazon preview of Roth's Deception, either.
    Don't take my advice personally. Also don't expect me to provide disclaimers like, "Just my opinion, but..." You should know that by now.

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