During a Worldcon panel the other weekend, someone had asked one of the panelists about detail in your prose; when do you need more, and when do you have too much? It’s a very good question indeed, because it’s one of the biggest mistakes a beginning writer often makes.
I should know, because I’ve gone through both extremes. Back in my school days, my writing lacked so much exposition that it read more like a shooting script than a novel. A few years and a handful of trunked projects later, I finally got the hang of balancing exposition with the action and dialogue. However, I soon slid to the opposite end of the spectrum: my prose was far too verbose. It took a few more years before I finally found and stuck with a happy medium.
How do I handle keeping a fine balance between prose and exposition in my writing? Good question, because half the time I’m going by instinct. I suppose all writers have their own balance they’re comfortable with, and mine is achieved by being aware of my pacing. It all goes back to my equating novel writing to songwriting: I go with what sounds right to me musically.
When I’m writing a scene, I’ll know ahead of time whether or not this is going to contain a lot of action and detail (fast beats, layered production, a high-powered chorus, and perhaps a middle eight to provide a quick breather before moving on again), if it’s going to be a highly emotional scene (slower pace, minimal production with detailed focus on the melody, a memorable chorus, and a solo to pull at the heart strings), or if it’s just going to be a connecting scene (short, sweet, and to the point, and the barest hint of a motif borrowed from a previous piece).
With this in mind, I’ll know when I need to fill out the scene with exposition or detail, or when it needs the barest of touches. A connecting scene will be tedious and drag on if I decide to put an infodump there, but it’ll make much more sense if I spread it out over the course of an action scene. Perhaps as a character slowly coming to the realization that the cousin was the murderer after all, and that all the pieces suddenly fall in to place and giving him even more reason to keep chasing this now-familiar shadowy figure in the alleyway.
Most of this is instinct to me now, because of my decades of listening, studying and memorizing different pieces of music. I write the scene according to the pace and the emotion I’m looking for. This is my particular style of writing so it may not work for everyone, but it certainly works great for me, and hasn’t steered me wrong yet. I even use it now and again when I’m writing these blog entries; even if it’s only a quick five hundred words, it’s still worth it for me to make the flow and style enjoyable to you, my readers.
I can’t tell you exactly what works for you as a writer, but I think keeping all this in mind might give you an idea of providing your own answer to that question: when do you need more information in your prose, and when do you have too much? Listen to the pace you’ve set, and let it provide the clues for you.