Too Much Detail?

The mystery writer Allen Eskins spoke to the Minnesota Mystery Night* gathering a couple of days ago. In the question session, Eskins was asked:  When you write, do you think about the reader? Eskins said no, and his answer got me thinking.

I had never really analyzed my own process this way. On introspection, I realized I do not think much about the reader when I draft. I have the story in a rough outline; mainly, I live in the characters’ minds. Since my novels are to some degree techno-thrillers, though, I do think about the reader during rewrite. I need to put in just enough technical detail to convince readers that they can trust that the technology part is believable. After several years of help from fine critique groups, I know not to fulfill my inner temptation to show how astoundingly clever/knowledgeable I am and bore readers to death with detail. Then, of course, I run headlong into the question of how much is enough. Techies will want more detail; readers more interested in character arc will want less.

Two books I’ve read recently crystallized the issue for me. The first, The Rose Code, by Kate Quinn, is literary fiction traveling as a mystery. Marvelous writing, three strong female protagonists who work in various capacities at Bletchley Park, the WWII English code-breaking facility. You’ll want to read it. Quinn has every reason not to tell the reader how the people at Bletchley broke the Enigma cyphers because Bletchley was famously compartmentalized. The three protagonists each knew only part of the process. Yet the brief description Quinn gives of the actual code breaking was too little for me. (Here’s my Goodreads review.)

The second book will remain unnamed. It’s one I reviewed prior to publication. The central idea dealt with biotechnology. At one point, the text discussed “recumbent” DNA technology. (One hopes the author meant “recombinant.”) Of course, “recumbent” is a dictionary word; a dumb spell checker would find it perfectly acceptable. There were other hints that the writer hadn’t had the book copy edited, but even given that it might just be a typo, “recumbent” destroyed the author’s credibility with respect to the mostly unstated biological/pharmacological processes that were central to the plot. For me, at least.

My takeaways: 1) write to abandon in the first draft; consider what’s necessary in the second. 2) Get your work copy edited.

* Minnesota Mystery Night is produced by Midwest Mystery Works, a group of five of us who write mysteries and thrillers. If you’re in the Twin Cities, it’s on the third Monday of each month. You can get advance notice through my newsletter or on the MMW Facebook page.

The Show and the Tell


All writers balance the Show and the Tell. All writers have been told to “show, don’t tell” more than once.

This morning, I’m reminded of this moldy aphorism because I’m judging for the Royal Palm Literary Awards, and I just wrote it. As beginning writers, all of us lean toward using both a Show (to describe the situation) and a Tell (to nail it down). I think there’s something of human nature in this: the need for control. As a novice writer, I work the words to show the look of astonishment on a character’s face changing to anger when she learns an uncomfortable truth. Not easy to describe, so just in case the reader doesn’t get the picture, I tell them that she’s astonished, then angry.




It takes a bit of writing and getting critique to understand the truth of writing: The picture in the reader’s mind is unique to the reader, a mix of the writer’s words and the reader’s experience. The writer needs to balance the Show and the Tell skillfully to create a vibrant picture in the reader’s mind … accurate, but not exact.

The normal critique group comment is “cut the Tell.” That’s almost always said in the context of dialog. Tell has its place, because Tell is compact, a good way of giving information quickly.

I think the reason we often lean toward the belt and suspenders Show/Tell is that need for the reader to see it our way. (The mental equivalent of the plaintive, “What I meant to say was …”).

I must be maturing; I’m learning from advance readers of Skins and Bone that I sometimes do too little Tell. (advertisement: You, too, can be and advance reader. Punch HERE.)