Someone asked me recently about where a writer should draw the line between explaining something in painstaking detail versus just glossing over a topic and letting the reader try to figure it out on their own. It’s a complex question, really, and there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer.
What was really interesting, though, was that right on the heels of this question, I had an experience in my critique group that not only did NOT answer that question, but highlighted how there truly isn’t a right or wrong answer.
First off, let me say that I absolutely love all of my critique partners, and our times together are full of valuable feedback, learning experiences, and lots of fun. One of the elements that makes a good critique group, I think, is having a diverse group of writers who all have different writing styles, favorite genres, and writing experiences.
I had submitted a section of the next dieselpunk adventure starring my 1920s heroine Mrs. Jones, and in that scene she and her friends are playing a game of bridge. I kept the details of the game to a minimum (partly because the bridge game is not vital to the plot, and partly because I was too lazy to do detailed research for my first draft). Anyway, several of my critique partners either had questions/confusion about the scene or just glossed over the bits that featured the game, because they knew nothing about how to play bridge (and/or didn’t even know that there was a card game called bridge).
Another of my critique partners, however, happened to be an experienced bridge player. And despite my efforts to be vague with the details of the game, she pointed out several places where I’d made a mistake and had incorrect details.
So what’s the answer? What should I do in my revisions of this scene? Well, obviously I need to correct my mistakes, of course. But should I put in not only more detail of the game, but an explanation of what bridge is or how to play? Do I need to define the role of the dummy in a game, or what “no trump” might mean in a given game? Or should I just toss in a few (correct, of course) lines and let the reader figure it out?
The fine line comes in wondering if I’m giving my readers too little information or too much. The readers who don’t even know that bridge is a card game might enjoy more details and explanations of the game. The readers who know how to play bridge might be bored by tedious explanations of something they know all about. Since I have no idea how many of my future readers might be in either camp, no matter what I write I will likely have either too much or too little information.
And so, to answer the question that the title of this post asks, my answer is “I don’t know.” And that’s the answer I had to give to the person who was asking me about giving detailed explanations versus no explanation.
That’s why there isn’t a straight yes or no, one-size-fits-all answer. In a science fiction or fantasy genre, there will likely be a lot of in the way of detailed explanations, because the writer is building a world that no reader knows anything about. And regardless of the amount of explanations given, details and how-it-works bits should be sprinkled throughout a story in a manageable and realistic manner – no infodumps!
Generally, I believe it’s safe to err on the side of too little information rather than too much – unless the details are absolutely vital to the plot of the story. With good writing, a lot can be figured out from context. And if a reader really wants more details, there’s always good old Google.
I have some research to do before I re-write my bridge game scene, so that whatever details I wind up putting in can be correct. But I’ll probably leave out any explanations. Readers are smarter than we writers sometimes give them credit for. And there’s always Google.