Striking the Balance Between Details and Plot

One of the reasons why I love reading is because the experience and interpretation of the books we read is different to everyone who reads them. We may read the same words, but we will feel differently about them. It is based on the human experience. We are all different people, so of course we store and sift through the input of data into our systems in unique ways.

Another thing that I’m finding interesting with regards to reading is how differently I interpret or enjoy things over time. Books that I loved years ago are books that I can hardly get through now. Not in all cases, of course, but in some. There are aspects of literature that I never thought of before but drive me absolutely batty now. That’s probably a side effect of reviewing. I read books differently and notice the details a bit more, but the point was driven home this month by my read of A Dance with Dragons by George R. R. Martin. Years ago I couldn’t get enough of this series. This month, I could hardly force myself to finish this book. Things change, I guess.

The fact is, A Dance With Dragons is a solid installment into an epic fantasy series that has become a cornerstone in the genre, but it did almost nothing for me personally. When I really sit back to think about it, I’m realizing that I’m starting to struggle more and more with epic fantasy. While there are some series that I still love (Malazan Book of the Fallen, for example) there are so many more that I struggle to get through. It isn’t epic fantasy’s fault. In fact, I’d say it is probably a sign that epic fantasy is doing it right and I’m just weird for not appreciating what they are doing.

Years and years ago I loved epic fantasy because I loved all the details. I loved the huge worlds and reading a five-page dissertation on how someone makes camp at night. I enjoyed the battles with the cringe-worthy points. In many respects, I still do, but I’m finding that my old age is making me less tolerant toward them. There’s a balance between details and story that epic fantasy needs to strike, and when the books don’t strike that balance right, I really struggle with getting through them. That’s what I found out with A Dance With Dragons, and that’s also why I gave up on The Wheel of Time series. Sometimes authors seem to know when to cut the details and move on with the story, and others get so mired in the world that the details overwhelm the story and my brain eventually gets exhausted and turns off.

I’m noticing this pet peeve of mine more and more often now. For example, if your book is full of entire chapters where people do nothing more than think and travel up a river – (including all the details of said travel, like when people wake up and when they pee off a boat – over and over again) I’m done. I get exhausted with that. There’s a balance, and the author hasn’t struck it right. However, that’s also part of why reading is so much fun for me. For every book I say that about, there will be a handful of readers who love the book because of those details that seem overwhelming to me.

No matter how I personally feel about it, these fans of details do have a good point in their arguments. The details in epic fantasy make it feel more epic and more real. It’s nice to know when that your protagonist and antagonist have to take a break from all the fighting to do something so human as pee. It’s interesting to know that the tedious boat trip to me is also tedious to the characters on that boat. While I may have stopped appreciating those details over time, epic fantasy is telling the story of a bunch of characters, and sometimes their lives are detail filled and boring. Sometimes it involves a lot of moving and very little action. Sometimes all that moving around demands a lot of introspection and thought on the character’s part. Those lovers of detail tend to say that the details make the characters real, and I agree with them.

Epic fantasy is an interesting genre to read and it must be a very difficult one to write. The “epic” in the genre title means that it is huge in scope. There has to be a story there, but the breadth and depth of it can be as sprawling as the author wants. While I do get tired of series and books getting mired in details, and I feel like those details, while interesting, can hinder the plot, I can also see where the lovers of details are coming from. Knowing you are reading a book about people who have to battle uncertainty, pack their bags to travel vast distances, or pee occasionally makes readers feel more invested in those characters and the story. They are human, they are like you and me, and those details prove it. They are interesting and round out the story nicely. Details can make readers feel invested in what is happening. They can make the “epic” feel so much more “epic.”

I don’t hate epic fantasy. In fact, Malazan Book of the Fallen is one of my most favorite series in the history of ever and I would argue that it doesn’t get much more epic than that. There is a lot of traveling and a lot of military action that goes on. The world is gigantic both in terms of geography and history. However, where I’d argue that this series is different from some others out there that I may or may not have mentioned earlier in this post is that Erikson never really overwhelmed the story with details. There were never vast swaths of his books where nothing happened but making camp or thinking about how shitty life is. He balanced those moments well with plot development, character development, action or any number of other things.

For me, epic fantasy is all about the balance between the details and the plot. I have to hand it to authors, because in my mind epic fantasy or (again, my opinion here) its space opera equivalent must be the two hardest genres to write. It has to be difficult to write a story and include all those details authors know their readers want but also progress the plot at the same time. I can’t fault them for getting mired in the details, or even overlooking them sometimes. They are writing epic stuff, and while this may seem like the most impressive bitch-fest ever, the truth is, I don’t write the genre because I don’t think I have the head for it. I’m not smart enough. However, what really makes the “epic” work in epic fantasy is the balance between details and story. When an author strikes that balance right, I tend to love those books. When the balance is skewed more toward one pole or the other, I lose interest pretty fast.

So now you’re saying something like, “Hey Sarah, that’s fascinating, but what is the point of all of this?” The answer? I’m not really sure. I guess I’m interested in striking up a discussion. That’s the other thing I love about reading. We might not all see eye to eye, but your opinions and insights into the genre I love so much really broadens my horizons and makes me look at things differently. So, weigh in. Do you like the details or do you hate them? When is it “too much” or “too little”?

8 Responses

  • I gave up on The Wheel of Time b/c I got tired of A) every single piece of dialogue being followed by a paragraph of internal reflection and B) by the time I got to the end of the book nothing had really happened. And GRRM is going there now too by having so many storylines. Somehow “epic” got equated with “long.” I think what makes something epic is not how many words it takes to tell it but what the scale of events is. (I think this is also a problem with trilogies, where a story could be told in 2 books but author and publisher feel obligated to have 3.)

    As a writer, I love details. And epic fantasy is completely fun to write because there is so much world-building involved. But as a reader I skip over long passages of description. I think the key to balancing is to find the right details and let them stand in for a bunch of others that the reader can imagine.

    • I have to agree with you on all points. I do enjoy trilogies, however, because they have a definite beginning, middle, and end point. The problem trilogies often suffer from is the “middle book syndrome” though. The second book usually feels like a bridge more than a book that can stand on its own two feet. I also agree that epic shouldn’t be defined by length but by scope. Some stand alone books are incredible epics. There have been a few books I’ve reviewed on here where I’ve thought the author was proving that epic doesn’t have to mean “1200 pages long.”

      As for writing epic fantasy, I think the world building must be a ton of fun. I always admire authors who can write epic fantasy. It takes one hell of a brain to pull that stuff off.

  • Good post. I agree that A Dance of Dragons is a little wearisome. Not sure if I can be bothered with the next installment if that ever comes out.

    But what is a good example of a short(ish) book that would be regarded as Epic? Few fantasy books these days are under 400 pages so let’s set that as a vague guide between short and tall…..

  • Julie Miller

    Amen to all of the above. The boat down river was interminable.

  • I nominate Le Guin’s The Other Wind for short and epic. And even if you take all 5 of the Earthsea books and put them together and call that the epic, it’s still probably shorter than a lot of epics out there.

  • L Jagi Lamplighter (Wright)

    My friend Bill and I have discussed A Dance With Dragons over and over. Basically, Martin was counting time. He put all the cool stuff in the first book of the two he broke Dance with Dragons into…then he had to explain how the other characters got to where they needed to be.

    He should have just had a five year jump.

  • Liam

    How do you feel about Lord of the Rings? That’s a series that I have never been able to wade through. Props to Tolkien for all his world-building and incredible level of detail in the universe, but the books are so goddamn dull, I can never slog through them. I can do without hearing about every single leaf in a forest, thanks, and hearing the detailed backstory of every character who is mentioned in passing.

    • Liam, I am in the SAME boat with Tolkien. I have never been able to make it through, though props to him for all he’s done for the genre.

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