Sunday, August 19, 2012

Narrative Detail vs. Keeping the Plot Moving

For years I've noticed that when something is really working on my subconscious I'll stumble across clusters of articles and/or conversations and/or televisions shows about the issue. It would appear that the subject of crafting a Story to conform to how the human brain works is an important subject for me these days.  I have blogged about this before, most recently here. Yet another good article on the subject recently ran here at  Write to Done.

The thing that intrigues me about these articles is that they so perfectly describe the way I read. I don't just read a book: I inhabit it. I move into the story world and follow the characters around, barely containing my eagerness to learn what will happen next. Most of the time I'm right there with the characters experiencing the story as though I were a part of it.  I read like Bastian in The Never-Ending Story. It's uncanny how much these articles describe that very experience.

Occasionally some little detail in a story will get my attention and cause me to take a detour from the main story. Sometimes I wander off on my own little imaginary trips down paths that the author decided not to explore. That's always  a lot of fun.

For that reason, I paused when I got to #4 in the list: only tell us what we need to know.  I understand the concept of keeping the story moving and keeping the suspense high, but I like detail and narrative when I read. I love descriptions of the sky (think Zane Grey in Riders of the Purple Sage),  the ocean (I've never read descriptions of the sea that were more spot on than the ones in Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund),  the colors of the fields in the countryside,  the arrangement of furniture in a grandmother's room, the colors and textures of the clothes the main character prefers.  Rich detail helps me get lost in the author's story. If an author doesn't give me enough detail, I make up my own, but that distracts me from the story the author is telling and pulls me off into the process of making up my own story about the subject.

There's a fine line, of course. I'm not a fan of the kind of nineteenth century novels that describe in excruciating detail every element of the scene -- both exterior and interior.  But, on the other hand, the novels I've loved the best are filled with narrative detail.

I hope we're not headed toward writing novels that are only about the plot, providing just the pertinent facts to keep the story moving along.  If I want just the facts, I'll read blogs that enumerate information in 500 words or less.

When I read a novel, I want a completely fleshed out story world in all its magnificent detail.

What is more, it is sometimes fun when an author takes me on a side-trip that doesn't really go anywhere, but may help me get to know the character and/or the story world a little better. The scene may not move the plot forward, but if it helps me sink deeper into the world of the story or understand the characters better, I think it's not necessarily a bad thing. Done correctly, those little detours can also enhance the suspense.

I love the theory of writing in accordance with the way the human brain works.  However, I think a little meandering around is not an entirely bad thing in a novel. If nothing else, it prolongs the pleasure of the reading experience, which is one of the delicious luxuries of the novel as an art form.


  1. One positive about skeletally detailed novels is they encourage the sort of reader/writer collaboration or inhabitation you suggest, i.e. by adding your own skyline or sea breeze you're making the moment exclusive to you as a reader, which gives you a unique connection with the book. If everyone sees the same skyline, feels the same breeze, the experience is rendered banal through its extreme precision.

  2. That is a really good point. I guess the trick for a writer is to provide enough detail to keep the reader focused on the story you are trying to tell but not so much that the reader can't join in the creative process.

    Thanks for stopping by.