I’ve seen books with just a few characters and minimal world-building. I’ve seen authors who manage insane level of detail. There are advantages and disadvantages to both ends. Today, I’ll share my thoughts on them, based on my experience with reading and writing alike.
It’s easy to admire the skill and imagination of someone able to conjure a fictional world down to detail most of us would not dream about, whether it’s landscaping, custom languages, currencies, complex system of factions, and more. Yet, I think there’s some level of skill and talent in being able to tell a story with much less ‘material’.
Maybe I feel this way because, way before I ever considered trying to write something of my own, I considered giving fan-fiction short stories a try. Short stories, due to the format, keep the cast (the amount of character) and the world-building to a minimum yet get a lot out of such a minimalistic approach (if written well, of course).
As I’ve been reading and also trying to learn about the writing world, I developed a sense of respect for authors of short stories – being able to tell a story in a word count range a full-scale epic fantasy needs just to set up the world is no small feat.
Saying where is the line for ‘not enough detail’ or ‘too much detail’ is impossible. Partially because it depends a lot on the execution of the particular story. A character-driven story will probably do well with lower amount of geography or backstory. A plot-driven story will probably develop the areas most important for the plot itself – whether it’s geography, politics, magical system, or anything else.
Then, another important aspect is the reader. I’ve seen a book rated low by one reader who said the detail was over the top and unnecessary while another praised the same level of detail and the author’s boundless imagination.
I feel the only aspect close to a hard truth is the fact the descriptions and level of detail should not hinder the flow. The execution – pacing – matters a lot. Info dumps are an issue and, in extreme cases, can deter the reader from continuing the book.
Just as readers are different, so are the writers. Different writers have different strengths and weaknesses. I believe the best case is finding both and writing the story in a way that makes the most of the strengths (without going too far, as said above) and nudges the reader to use their imagination to fill in the blanks.
Personally, I knew physical descriptions of characters are my weak point. I honestly can’t describe someone I don’t see regularly more than the very basics. As she’s living on her own for a few years already, I admit I don’t even know what hair color is my sister currently wearing. In a way, I am the stereotypical man who would not notice his wife dyed or cut her hair unless the change would be too obvious. Thus, the characteristics I mention for my characters are vague. To complete the self-example, I think it’d work the best if the characters’… character was a counterbalance, by making characters with complex and/or interesting personalities. Being a poor judge of myself, I can hardly say whether I am doing well in that regard.
I have hard time thinking what might be my strengths. Knowing many aspects of doubt from my own life, I believe the way I had the MC face his doubts could be something I might be doing well. Anyway, I hope some external feedback will help me find out where I struggle and what I do well.
I’ll wrap it up here. I’ll welcome your thoughts: is there some amount of detail you consider way too much – or not enough by far? An example to give? Your own experiences on finding the middle ground? Feel free to share!