I'm refining scenes. I know all the details. The reader needs to know "just enough."
How much is just enough?
This is precisely the sort of question that comes to me when I read books about writing. I understand the points "distill" and "essential to the events." What I question is "what is that amount?"
Of course, this is where being a reader comes in, isn't it?
We've all read descriptions of a setting and environs that reflected some lyric majesty. At two-thirty in the morning, I can do with less majesty.
We've also read prose where we have to go back and re-read the scene because the whole thing was a white-room; but, the author chose something about the white room which proved essential and we missed it. Without our handhold, we fell from three floors up in the tale. We had to go back. We didn't like that.
So, what is the proper amount cine-graphic scene setting? The proper amount. What does it take for we writers wearing our reader-hats to understand the setting in which our events transpire ? That's the detail we need.
Aunt Tilley's hand-hooked run in the entry-way of the farmhouse means little to the story ... unless Uncle Joe is lying upon it with a cleaver in his back. Then, the rug adds something as we let the reader know in our opening that Joe lay dead upon Tilly's rug. The reader will deduce the cleaver might be Tilly's as well. Helpful, that rug fact.
I've got a body in a November creek. It's unusually wet and the creek is running. The sheriff, a deputy, and a priest are at the scene. The priest is in a pick-up on the road and stopped as the pair of officers return to the sheriff's vehicle to wait for the county coroner. How much detail about the gravel road, the location (formerly an informal dump when ashes from the burn barrels of the residents in town might be emptied) , the vehicles, the sky, the threat of rain, and the hour should I include?
The answer: the amount that grounds me as a reader in the scene.
Hate those descriptions so sparse in a mystery where every detail mentioned becomes significant in the plot because that's all the writer keeps in his revision cycle? Me, too. I've faulted some big-name crime guys for this very trend.
I want enough detail to feel connection to the action and not too much so I find myself saying "ok, enough with the burnt umber color of the road, for Dog's sake."
How much is enough?
How much is enough for your reader self? Keep that level for me. I'll buy your books.
Cut down to something less, you lose me at the scene. Too much more and I think your narrative is bloated.
Enough is enough. That's the answer for so much of our craft.
Also the answer to how long I should make this blog post. Good-night.