By David Flin
“A dry martini,” he said. “One in a deep champagne goblet.” “Oui, monsieur.” “Just a moment. Three measures of Gordon’s, one of vodka, half a measure of Kina Lillet. Shake it very well until it’s ice-cold, then add a large thin slice of lemon peel.”
Casino Royale, Ian Fleming.
In this article, I’m going to discuss just how much detail one needs to go into in an Alternate History story. The above quote is taken from Ian Fleming’s Casino Royale, with Bond’s famous recipe for a Vesper Martini. It is very detailed, and completely unnecessary to the plot. Bond takes his drink, starts his game, and the drink is never referred to again.
What is the point of Fleming’s including it? Firstly, the book was written in 1953. Rationing in Britain ended in 1954. Self-evidently, it was intended to give the British reader some vicarious luxury. It became a theme in Fleming’s Bond novels, almost comically so. During the course of one book, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Bond consumes:
Pouilly-Fuissé wine. Riquewihr wine. Marsala wine. Most of a bottle of Algerian wine. Some 1953 Château Mouton Rothschild claret. Taittinger champagne. Krug champagne. Babycham. Three bourbon and waters. Half a pint of IW Harper bourbon. Jack Daniel’s whiskey. Two double bourbon on the rocks. Two whisky and sodas. Two neat scotches. One neat whisky. Four vodka tonics. Three double vodka martinis. Two double brandies with ginger ale. A flask of Enzian schnaps. A double gin.
Naturally, all that wine and spirits needed something else, so it was washed down with four steins of German beer. In between that, and his food consumption (Fleming describes over 70 different meals, every one different), and his smoking (Bond has his cigarettes custom-made by Morland of Grosvenor Street, a mix of Balkan and Turkish tobacco. The cigarettes have three gold bands on the filter) – at one point, it is revealed that Bond is smoking 70 cigarettes a day. In between all this, Bond manages to get some spying done.
The point of this is to raise the question: When is a lot of detail necessary, and when can one gloss over the details as simply not being relevant?
The detail has to serve a purpose. In writing a story set in an Alternate World, you are trying to create a picture of a different world, while at the same time, developing the actual story.
That’s the primary question you have to ask yourself: does the detail add anything important? In the case of Fleming’s Bond novels, the constant references to drink and food and cigarettes and clothing is all part of giving the reader of the day vicarious enjoyment of a world beyond their reach. Fleming described his books as “pornography”; not for the sex scenes, which even for the day were remarkably unforthcoming, but for the details of the exotic – places, food, drink, and so on. The spy stuff is merely the vehicle for the rest.
If the story is essentially a murder mystery, then you need to play fair by the established rules of the whodunnit. For example, if part of the murder involves doctoring a meal with a sleeping draught, with the taste disguised by lavender oil, then lavender oil needs to feature in the description.
On the other hand, if a detail isn’t relevant, then it detracts from the story. If a character, under a bizarre and implausible set of circumstances, is using tank tracks to make impromptu snowboards for a group of hastily made snowmen, we probably don’t need to know what sort of tank the tracks were intended for, or the muzzle velocity of the gun on the tank in question (details of this story – Comedy of Terrors – can be found in The Return of King Arthur and Other Tales).
You’ll need to consider just how much detail is needed in each instance. In general terms, too much detail tends to slow things down. Details can generally be added later. The question you should always be asking yourself is: “Does the detail add anything to the story.” Focus on what is relevant.
The easiest way to explain is with an example. Let’s say we want to include a scene in which the central character is travelling in a first-class compartment in a train from London to Edinburgh.
If we’re writing a murder mystery that will be set on this train when it is trapped in a snow-drift, then we need a description of the layout, thumbnails of the other characters in the compartment, and some details on anything that might be used as a clue (initials on luggage, oddities in dress of other characters, issues with the air conditioning, whatever).
If we’re writing the start of an adventure story, in which the central character is going to get a strange bequest in a will from a long-lost relative, then the carriage becomes irrelevant, and the main interest is in the scenery passing by; possibly the airships that will form part of the upcoming plot.
If you’re writing a piece of romantic fiction, this is probably the first encounter scene, and the descriptive focus needs to be on the two central characters.
If you’re writing a pastiche of the Ian Fleming Bond novels, then clearly we need to have the central character go to the dining carriage, where we can go into some detail about the Mussels à la Provençale.
If one is writing about an upcoming political campaign for a general election, then one needs to give details that will feed into what the campaign will be fought over. It might be that the election is about a growing level of inequality between rich and poor, so one would show the changing scenery, and possibly emphasise the wealth of the candidates which can be contrasted with the stoic hunger and relative poverty of the staff on the train.
The details that the author chooses to give the reader need to tie into what the story is about. Too much in the way of detail can bog the reader down, to the point where they lose interest in the story. Not enough detail, and they lose interest, as the story comes across as flat and two-dimensional.
A similar thing applies to describing what characters look like. If you describe too much, you’ll get bogged down in detail, and lose the interest of the reader. At best, the reader will just blend all the details in an amorphous mass, and not retain memory of any. Focus on a few key characteristics at a time. You can expand later, if required. If you describe the man with one ear larger than the other, that’s a detail the reader will remember throughout the story.
That leads to the question of how much detail is enough, and like everything in writing, it depends on what you’re writing. If you’re writing romantic fiction, the two central characters need more detail than usual; if you’re writing a political thriller, you don’t need so much, just what is relevant to drive the plot.
Just describe what is necessary. In Six East End Boys, Megan is described as being shorter than average, just a shade over five feet tall, with fair hair, and a lot of energy. The rest is left to the imagination of the reader. Now, I’ve got a clear picture of what she looks like in my head, but that’s just my picture. The reader may well have a different picture, and that’s fine. If it works, and fits all that is needed for the story, that’s fine.
“Lean, dark, tall, with a shaggy head of dark hair flecked with grey, and in a pale, stern face, a pair of keen, grey eyes.” From this, we have all the details of the character we need for the story. We get a good idea of what the character is like, and our expectations have been set on the route that the author intended. This is not a jovial comic relief, nor is it an inexperienced youngster, nor is it someone prone to unthinking acts of near-suicidal rashness. It’s probably one tough hombre, someone who has spent years dealing with situations. Probably not a barrel of laughs to be around, but a good person to have on your side in a tight corner.
That’s pretty much it on how much detail to include. Don’t overwhelm the reader, and give enough for the imagination to work, but not too much to swamp it.
How to improve? The way you do anything. Practice, practice, and more practice.