Critique Technique, Part 43—Too Many Notes

Violin bow over music score

Image courtesy of Luigi Diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

By Ross B. Lampert

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?”

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.) And yet….

The truth is, it’s 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-dump or info-dump), in which a truckload of details are dumped on the reader all at once, overwhelming him and simultaneously 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 that the story gets lost in the pile. To thoroughly mix my metaphors, the story becomes the needle in the haystack of details.

The thing is, it isn’t necessary to create mini-info-dumps to do this. 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 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 start to feel the piece bogging down? Here it is again, with all the descriptives boldfaced:

Louis ran his left hand through his wavy 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….

The problem with this piece is that it denies 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 (the reader) is going to disengage from it. This is one of the critical differences between a book and a movie 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 space opera shoot-‘em-up. 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 have from the author—while leaving the reader the space to fill in the rest.

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

  • 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 have provided to me, 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?

 

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