MFA Nugget: In Defense of Excessive Detail and Sentimental Disclosures

MONTPELIER, VERMONT: “My observation is that among students of writing, the inclusion of details is very out of fashion,” said novelist, memoirist and biographer Larry Sutin at a lecture here at my MFA residency with the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He finds this most upsetting, and I did as well, once he said during Q&A that the trend most certainly is not reflected in what is being published.

VCFA instructor Larry Sutin

We think of prose as more sparse now. We think of our 21st Century readers as embodying impatience, capable as they are at any moment of whipping out a smartphone and pulling up a video of a cat simultaneously burping and farting. We can’t load them down with physical details of people and places, or emotional details of pain or joy.

Having listened to Larry’s masterful lecture–among great lecturers here at VCFA, he is one of the best, the overpacked room (don’t tell the local fire marshal) a testament to that fact–what he believes is that modern readers resist writers who include detail and emotion poorly. They have not a fear of detail or emotion but a fear of tedium.

“Any writing done badly will be bad writing,” he said. I think that’s the quote, anyway, I was laughing too hard to write it down.

I’m getting a bit punchy here at the end of the residency, so let me simplify things for myself by providing a list of more nuggets from Larry’s lecture:

  • Choose your details wisely. Those objects you highlight, facial features you note, emotional moments you elaborate should tell a larger story. Leave out the rest.
  • Be unorthodox in your choices. Larry frequently cited letters Chekhov wrote to aspiring writers; according to Larry, Chekhov was a “one-man 19th Century MFA.” In one letter, he advises describing a moonlit night not by noting details of the moon, but instead the glint of light off of a building’s glass. We tune out the familiar but seize on the unusual but accessible.
  • Animate the inanimate: Again from Chekhov, when you apply action verbs to objects they become more interesting to readers.
  • The distinction between “interior” and “exterior” isn’t real. Everything the author includes in a book drives the narrative. Don’t be afraid to have your character reflect and react internally; they complement external cues.
  • Understand the role of understatement. Larry acknowledged much of modern fiction has moments of understatement, but he said careful examination of such prose will reveal that the reader has been queued previously. “Understatement works when we have other details” beforehand, he said.

Here at residency everyone carries a 13-page schedule printed on garish pink paper. It is our crutch. None of us know what day it is, either day of the week or day of the residency. We just look at what’s next and go to it. Thirteen pages sounds like a lot, but in fact it is a model of brevity when you consider how many activities are occurring here. So it’s not surprising they limit the length of the lecture titles in the schedule.

Larry’s lecture was listed on the schedule as “In Defense of Excessive Detail.” This apparently caused Larry some offense. He said the entire lecture title was “In Defense of Excessive Detail and Sentimental Disclosures,” and in fact that was the title in the materials sent to us prior to residency. Larry’s sense of humor can be subtle, so he may have been having fun with the notion that even his own college is cutting details he’s choosing to include in his writing. But the full title is a better descriptor of the lecture.

Perhaps I’m trying to make sure I take the lesson of including excessive detail to heart. Or perhaps I’m feeling sentimental here at the end of the residency. But I’ve decided to break my own internal rule on blog-title length and let Larry’s full title shine above.

What is your take on the use of details and emotional disclosure in writing today? How do you approach details in your own writing?

ABOUT THIS SERIES: As promised, I am posting occasional “nuggets” of wisdom I am acquiring here at my second residency in the MFA for Writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Previous posts include “Illuminating Your Story,” “A Window on Your Narrator,” “Creativity and Wasting Time,” “New Year’s Tradition,” “Storytelling vs. Fragmentation,” “Reading Your Work Aloud,” “Revision vs. Re-Vision,” “Dialogue as Action,” and “Pacing Yourself.”

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

17 Responses to “MFA Nugget: In Defense of Excessive Detail and Sentimental Disclosures”

  1. I have been thinking of this…as I notice I have more difficulty finishing (reading) novels and books myself. My attention span is in short bursts these days and this also has me concerned. What does it mean?

    Then, I come back to the idea that we have always been drawn to stories…good ones. And it is in the details that a good story is told…and written.

    People have always told stories about farting cats…whatever…and now we are seeing this and hearing about it in greater quantities. At the end of the day, the cream rises to the top the same as it always has. There is a fascination now with limited writing, video etc. and I think it will remain. But if I am going to really sit down and read a great story, I want it to come together in a satisfying way. And that is in the details.

    Our language is evolving (storytelling in the past was done through music and dance). Our ideas, stories and messages are evolving (now we have a global connection…and perhaps a shorter amount of time to get our message across). There are different ways of .”writing” and communicating…or the same with a new twist.

    When it all boils down…good writing rises to the surface and touches us in the most profound ways. It has always been this way. The details will be there for those who need that. …and I need that!

    Thanks for giving me a moment to take a look at how I feel about this topic.

    • Wow, what a great comment. That was very nice reflection!

      I read Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows a couple of years ago, and he cited studies that show our time online, with hyperlinks and short posts, actually re-maps synapses in our brains, making it harder to read one work for a long stretch of time. Not good for authors, obviously. But Larry in his lecture said he has interviewed readers who love certain biographies and asked why they liked them. He says they’ll say “I love that he didn’t get bogged down in detail, but I learned so many details.” That isn’t contradictory, he said; the author shared really interesting details. And yes, you and I both, if we’re going to sit down and read a great story, need that authorial attention.

      I’m glad the post provoked a moment of reflection for you!

  2. I agree with Larry: it’s not that some books have too much detail, but rather that the detail the author chose to describe was too ordinary to need description.
    I love the lessons from Chekhov. I think I’d like to have them tattooed on the inside of my wrist, or something🙂 Thanks so much for sharing those.

    I do love detail in a good novel. It’s funny how you can read one novel and simply wish for the writer to ‘get on with it, already’. And another novel will be chock full of details and we can’t get enough. Something to be learned there.
    I will be thinking about this post, Patrick.

    • You’re such a writer, Cynthia, wanting to tattoo Chekhov sayings! I love it!🙂

      What you say at the end about fast-moving vs. sluggish is something all of us readers experience, and I liked how Larry made me realize the AMOUNT of detail isn’t necessarily negatively correlated.

      I’m glad I provoked some thought, Cynthia! Hope you’re well.

  3. Thanks for opening up and sharing this lecture, Patrick. I enjoyed peering over your shoulder. Writing Rules are forged only to be melted down again and twisted into new tools, from gates to bridges in a fiery cauldron. At once valuable and mutable. That said, I agree with much of what you’ve harvested from Larry Sutin’s garden. There is a time and place for all manner of writing, all manner of GOOD writing, at least. And for the overly ornate or sentimental, deposit it in the blog and weeks/months/years later return for the sediment. Perhaps it will merit a second life. Perhaps not. Enjoy the the homestretch of your time in Montpelier.

    • “Writing Rules are forged only to be melted down again and twisted into new tools, from gates to bridges in a fiery cauldron.”

      Fantastic. Your comment about all manner of GOOD writing reminds me of Hemingway, who I love, but often is sparse on physical detail of his speakers. Yet I remember a writing instructor once sharing a paragraph of his work where in about 60 words he invoked all five senses (it was in a farmer’s market). He embodies both approaches to detail, but I love his prose even when there is no detail, and the emotional sharing requires some work to discern.

      I am in the homestretch, thanks for the good wishes. And thanks for the tweet with the extracted quote, perfect summation of the post.

  4. Thanks for sharing. Balancing out the details is something I struggle with as a new writer; I’ve certainly read and heard the advice Mr. Sutin references: to strip away detail and keep the story ‘moving’. Encouragement to keep it, and to use it wisely (and to be sentimental!), is a great counterbalance. I’ve enjoyed all of the insights from your residency a great deal.

    • You know, I’ve really been struggling with the “sentimental” side of it, but learned last semester that I can share deeply while being concise with prose (Joan Didion is an inspiration in that sense). That is how I’m developing the quick pace. We’re both learning, and I’m glad you can ride along with me on this residency!

  5. I am still learning as I write, but details are important. People want to see the story, not be told bare minimum facts. I guess the hard part is finding the right balance between enough details to show the story and too many that could pull the reader out of the story.

    • Aren’t we always still learning as we write? That’s one of the exciting things for me (and scary and frustrating as well) as I do this MFA; I’m realizing there really is no ceiling for a creative writer. There’s always even better prose around the next corner if you keep working at it. (Another Chekhov quote he shared was something like “Be honest and admit that writing is hard work. Honor that work.”)

      Yes, the key is balance. I suspect every writer brings their own balance to that equation.

  6. My conclusion, thinking on this, is that details are perhaps the seasonings for a story. Like a nice meal, a good story is more than just the ingredients. Plot, characters, and conflict can’t just be thrown into a blender to make an enjoyable tale any more than vegetables and meat could be thrown in to make a good meal. It’s a matter of getting the complimentary ingredients and putting them together in a suitable manner, to make a fine endd product. Just as adding too much salt to a course will spoil its effect, too much detail will make a scene unpalatable. In both cases, the completed work suffers.

    So, how much is enough? How much is too much? That’s the art. It is also the nebulous grey-zone, as everyone’s palate is slightly different. Some people will enjoy what others will hate. The trick is to find the right level seasoning so that many people will be able to enjoy the work.

    That said, if I am enjoying a book, I will endure a tediously detailed passage or three. For that matter, if I’m enjoying a book, I’m pretty much oblivious to the outside world. For me, as a reader, the big problem is getting me hooked. I can only think of one example where I felt the beginning of a book was overly detailed and I actually enjoyed it. Had I not been home sick, though, I might not ever have read the whole thing. So, if I were advising somebody trying to write a book for people like me, I’d suggest against getting too detailed at the start.

    Thanks for the post. I enjoyed it!

    • What a great comment, thanks!

      On the point of putting up with tough stretches, there are still great 19th Century and early 20th works that have descriptions that editors would deem excessive, but they’re still read and loved.

      I love your seasoning analogy. You can say each writer favors their own blend. You can only use saffron and truffles. You can go strong and add garlic to everything. You can go light, just a bit of cilantro. Or you can to niche, say curry or wasabi. As a diner, I like variety in my diet, but will return to a chef who knows his or her ingredients and uses them well.

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