Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Empty Room Versus The Filigreed Flourishes

Sarah talked yesterday about a tendency to genericise, to reduce the details of our imagined worlds to the bare bones and let readers put their own filigree and flourishes into the story.

There is a certain amount of validity to this, since the world inside our heads is always much richer than anything on paper. But at the same time, if we strip down too far, we run the risk of talking heads in empty rooms (guilty, yeronner).

Heinlein was a master of putting in just enough to make the scene spring to life - and choosing the perfect detail to do it, usually something that implied a whole bunch more and built the world in our heads for us. Pratchett does the same in his fantasies, building on the more or less common heritage of fairytales to layer the details in a way that the more you know about history in general, mythology and the just plain weird, the richer his books become. As a quickie example, in Making Money, the parrot's squawk of "Twelve and a half percent!" has at least four layers of meaning that I've identified. There are probably more.

Who do you think gets it just right? If you feel like some examples where the author's gone too spare and left you with the talking heads, or too lush and given you way too much description instead of plot, feel free to mention those as well.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Without naming names, I came across a fantasy writer who put a list of what was in a room or what was served for dinner.

This would have been fine if they were writing a satire.

Chris McMahon said...

I have to put my hand up for David Gemmell. He had wonderful balance in his writing. He was often writing in the blurred area between alternate history and fantasy and had a great way of evoking the ancient world.

Loved that guy.

Damn the gods for taking him so young!

Kate said...


There are no words... Truly. It's like another not-named fantasy writer where it's all clothes for pages and pages. And there's no point to the clothes.

Compared to Pratchett's lovely description of Herrena the Henna Haired Harridan in The Light Fantastic with the side notes about the author needing a brisk shower to cool off...

Although, I'm given to understand some people just adore pages and pages of who ate what and what jewels they had and what they wore.

Er. Ick.

Kate said...


That kind of balance is - sadly - all too rare.

And sadly, those who have it do tend to get taken too young.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Heinlein and Pterry, natch, but also our very own Monkey. In Dragon's Ring he created some "living" landscapes that I'm sure I visited and lived in and smelled and all while going through the story. Others... Saylor in Roma Subrosa series. Lynda Robinson in her Egypt series. I'm sure there are others, these are just the ones that come to mind. :)

Kate said...


I'm going to have to order Dragon's Ring. So far the snippets have me eagerly waiting for the next one.

And you're no slouch at it either. DarkShip Thieves is full of places I'd swear I know from reading.

Anonymous said...

I complain about this sort of thing so often I am sure there are some people who can quote my rant verbatim so I will hold off the rant this time.

One thing I would like authors to consider is the adage from the theatre "Don't introduce a knife into the first act unless it going to be used by the third". True books and acting are different mediums but I think a lot of the same rules apply.

Kate said...


Absolutely. If it doesn't forward the plot in some way (which can include using the action to supply background information that impacts the plot) it doesn't need to be there.

I try to make sure that if I'm describing the clothes, or the food, I'm doing it because it's setting up for a decision that a main character makes later on. I couldn't say I always succeed, but it's something I try to do.

Anonymous said...

You can do an awful lot of World Building with a knife, even without using it.

Your knife can be chipped stone or swiss army. The hilt can match your rapier, or maybe it's your mother's safe knife, that she has a kitchen-only license for. Carefully preserved relic or razor edged commando. Carefully honed or carelessly flipped.

The nice thing about print is that you can point out details and subtleties to the readers. On stage, it's just a knife.

MataPam, chiming in late.

Kate said...


That is a perfect example of just the right detail. One short, simple description, and you've implied the technological level of a culture, something of its attitudes, and given readers a hook into the society.