Detail: when is it too much?


Avoiding the ‘info dump’.

I’ve just finished reading ‘Take Nothing with you’ by Patrick Gale, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Without giving too much away, it’s about an older man in hospital, reminiscing about his youth as a young cello player. What surprised me was the level of musical detail (Gale too plays the cello). And what surprised me even more was that I enjoyed it! Yet, apart from a brief attempt to learn the recorder as a child, which is best glossed over, I have never played an instrument or sung in a choir. Music lessons at school were something to be got through before I could escape to the library or the sports field. So why do I find myself intrigued by passages such as:

            I’d like to play you the Prelude from the third Bach Suite. It begins with the C major scale and arpeggio …

            And: She showed him how thumb position used the principle that a thumb pressed down hard an octave above the open A on the A string could form an anchor position in which notes could be sounded with the four fingers just as in first position but an octave higher.

I think because the technical information is embedded in the narrative. It doesn’t feel bolted on, or put there to show off or to pad out. Because the protagonist, Eustace, is so well drawn, the readers invest in his story. They want to know if his musical career will be successful, so there is tension in the narrative, and the technical detail is part of that. I also, to my surprise, found it genuinely interesting – Gale didn’t patronise or bore me, he wrote to me as someone who would understand the musical references, so I became intrigued by them.

Strangely enough, my current w.i.p is also about music. I have had to make a pest of myself, pumping every musician I know for information. It would be tempting just to download the facts in one go (known as the info dump) but I know I must follow Patrick Gale’s example and make my research part of the narrative. So I use music as a plot element - my central character is in danger and it is only her musical abilities that can save her. Let’s hope it works!

I once wrote a story that featured some characters watching a football world cup game. Because I had watched that game myself, and remembered it vividly, I tried to capture every detail. A friend who read my story said she skipped that section as she found it boring! Fair enough. I was being self-indulgent and the level of detail brought nothing to the story. Had it reflected some of the dramas between the characters or been intrinsic to the narrative, she might have accepted it. But it did neither – and I eventually cut it.

So: how much technical detail can we include? If we follow Patrick Gale’s example, a surprising amount – as long as it is central to the story and not just embellishing it.

StyleGill ThompsonComment