How Detailed Is Enough?

By: L.E. Modesitt Jr.

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 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.

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