Critique Technique, Part 42 — Too Many Notes

Violin bow over music score
Image courtesy of Luigi Diamanti /

Perhaps you remember this exchange from the movie Amadeus:

Emperor Joseph II: “My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Just cut a few and it will be perfect.”

Mozart: “Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?”[1]

Wow. Talk about a perfect response to an ignorant critic—never mind that the critic happened to be an Emperor! I guess that would qualify as a 3-star review. (It’s worth noting that a few lines earlier, the orchestra’s conductor had set the Emperor up by feeding him that criticism. Talk about helping throw someone under the bus! But I digress….)

The truth is, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. In writing, that “good thing” can be descriptive details. Last time I wrote about the expository lump (a.k.a. the data- or info-dump), in which a truckload of details is dumped on the reader all at once, simultaneously overwhelming him and killing the forward motion of the story.

Another way to drown the reader in detail is to provide so much information about each person or object, each action a character takes, the factors contributing to a scene’s mood or atmosphere, etc., that the story becomes the needle in the haystack of details.

It isn’t necessary to create mini-info-dumps to do this either. Writers can do it just by providing a single detail about everything in the scene. Let’s take an example:

Louis ran his left hand through his wavy black hair while he perched on the right arm of the paisley-patterned sofa. Soft yellow light from the brass torchiere lamp warmed the rectangular library, casting an even glow across the six-high shelves filled with leather-bound books on his right and the wall against the long hall that led from the comfortable family room to the ornate bedrooms at the east end of the house.

Selena oozed into the room. A string of black pearls, centered on one fully an inch across, glowed against her creamy skin, just enough of which was bared by the modest neckline of her black brocaded dress….

Whew. That’s enough. Did you feel the piece bogging down?

What’s the Problem?

As I suggested earlier, physical descriptions are not the only place where this can happen. Any time the author has some degree of expertise in or passion about a topic that’s a part of the story, or has done a lot of research on it, this trap lays in wait. Every detail of every move a pair of combatants make, for example, whether they’re people in hand-to-hand combat, maneuvering fighter aircraft or spacecraft, armies, or ships at sea can do this. So can moves in any sort of game or sport, animal behaviors, how a structure is being or was constructed, any scientific or technical venture, preparing a meal or making a piece of clothing or work of art. The list of possibilities is pretty much infinite.

In each case, the writer is denying the reader any role in the story. Remember, the reader is the writer’s partner in creating the story. The writer provides the framework on which the reader builds the image of the story in her mind. When a writer provides so much detail that there’s little or no room left for the reader to provide her own, she’s going to disengage from it.

This is one of the crucial differences between a book and a movie, play, or TV show: in the visual media, the viewer plays little or no part in imagining the setting and the characters, whereas in a book, the reader is the co-creator.

Now, how much detail constitutes “too much” varies by genre. A Victorian Romance wants more detail than a science fiction shoot-’em-up space opera. Each also wants different details. The key, as always, is to pick the right details—the evocative ones or the ones that provide information the reader must be told—while leaving him the space to fill in the rest.

Questions for You

So as a reviewer, how do you determine whether the author has written “too many notes?” Ask questions like these.

  • Is there so much description that the story bogs down?
  • Did I find myself losing track of the story, the plot, or even the characters because there were so many details?
  • Which details were the ones I had to be given, and which could I have supplied on my own?

The answers to these questions will help you guide the author toward a stronger, cleaner, and tighter manuscript.

How do you determine whether an author is providing too much detail throughout a story? Once again, don’t worry about how many details you provide when you add your suggestions in the comments box below.

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