Earlier today someone told me a Finnish joke:
Kyllikki: Eino, we have been married for three years and in all those years you have never said you loved me!
Eino: Why do you worry? I told you I loved you the day we were married. I will let you know if that changes.
I found it mildly amusing; it is apparently more so if you are Finnish. However, it did make me think about the repetition of details in writing.
This method pleases the chéf in me as it allows for a personalised blend. I also noted the method down in my little book of writing ideas and started wondering whether describing a character’s a liking for self-mixed bicerin would work better as a charming eccentricity or a sign of snobbishness. However I soon remembered that my wife and many other people do not sense the same subtle differences in taste between similar recipes as I do; they would probably not care – or might even be bored by – a focus on the perfect drink, so it would sit poorly as anything other than major imagery and even then only in a more literary form.
The joke works because it is clear to us that Eino has not repeated the details as often as is needed; however the trap of too much detail is more insidious. We all have things we like and naturally enjoy reading about them. It is easy for these to likes to assume too great a place in our work.
This risk is even worse if they are newer interests. You do not need to know bicerin is from Piedmont to enjoy it but as soon as I thought of having a character drink them I researched them thoroughly and would have included it all to prevent the allegation that my character did not actually make the perfect drink. It is of course likely the only reader who would have cared about this detail would have also disagreed with my layering process. So by adding detail we risk not only getting it wrong but losing the only readers who care if it is there in the first place.
The same risk falls upon readers: when we find too much description, or too little, we risk abandoning sight of the overall work to focus on the level of fine detail.
Do you enjoy detailed descriptions of new things in stories, or do you prefer a brief mention? Do you often include the wrong level of detail in your own work?