Just the Right Amount of Detail

Screenwriters have a big advantage over those of us who write for print. That fact was brought home to me recently while watching one of the many excellent British mystery programs on PBS. A recurring sequence in these dramas: The detective superintendent gets a call that a body has been found, and off they go to the crime scene. Of course the same thing can happen on the pages of a book, often a dramatic finish to a chapter, making the reader want to go on to the next page.

However, on the television screen we get the fade-out before the camera switches to the crime scene. With one wide shot the scene is set. We’re at the side of a river where the body lies on the ground, surrounded by uniformed police and cordoned off by yellow crime tape. The river flows almost silently behind the group, oblivious to the action on its bank. Crime scene investigators dressed in white are the closest to the victim and one of them takes pictures as he walks carefully, being sure his footprints are minimal.

The eye does it all

Our detective superintendent stands back waiting to be called by the rubber-gloved medical examiner who kneels over the body. His young assistant stands behind him trying to maintain a professional demeanor, though still uncomfortable with everything that goes with violent death. This wide patch of grass along the river would be pastoral on any other day, perhaps a place for a picnic or tryst, but at this moment the murder of a human being has made it dark.

If the scene took place on the pages of a book, the author would have written even more detail than I. This may take several paragraphs to create a mood and give the reader the optimum sense of what is happening, taking several minutes to read. On television the viewer gets it all in a matter of seconds thanks to one wide shot—the eye does it all.

The imagination of the reader

My books take place in Italy, where gestures are as much a part of the vocabulary as spoken words. Describing a flick of the fingers across the chin accompanied by a sneer does not convey disdain as well as actually seeing the character do it. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a few seconds of film must be worth a million. However, this is the challenge we writers take on, and we are helped by the imagination of the reader. What they see on the screen is what they get, but the written word allows them more flexibility through their own imagination as their eye moves down the page.

Readers can add their own experiences to make a scene richer, or focus more on one aspect of the action than another. Readers can even put the book down for a moment and ponder what they’ve read. So the author and the reader work together, and a good writer knows just how much description and detail his readers need do their thing.

How much does the reader need

This is something I wrestle with constantly in the writing process: How much description does the reader need? Do I describe a new character in minute detail or do I pick a few things about him or her to give the reader something to form a basic image, and then let them expand on it themselves in their mind’s eye? Do they need to read about every sight and smell during one of my protagonist’s lunches? (My protagonist eats out a lot.)

The history of the Italian town where he finds himself is fascinating to me, but how much does my reader care about it? My rule of thumb is that it’s okay as long as it allows the plot to move along at the correct pace, and doesn’t detract from the main purpose of the scene. A novel, especially a crime novel, has to flow at the right speed or a reader will either get bored or feel short changed. The trick is finding that speed, with just the right amount of detail.

David P. Wagner is the author of A Funeral In Mantova, the fifth in the Rick Montoya Italian Mystery series. He is a retired foreign service officer who spent nine years in Italy where he learned to love things Italian, many of which appear on the pages of his books. David lives in Colorado.

David has also written a post for Moon Publishing as part of a special promotion. Check out Books About Italy to Read Before Your Trip, and enter for a chance to win his new book A Funeral in Mantova, a Moon travel guide, Florence: The Paintings and Frescoes, a copy of Twist Travel Magazine, and a package of delicious Italian goodies!