How Much Detail is too Much?

How much detail is too much? In a world where people compare the grainy footage of the nineteen eighties to what flows through their home television today, this might seem like a ludicrous question. However, given the constant push for hyper realism in media, especially with those heightened resolutions, I consider this to be a pertinent question to think about. The argument for pushing all those details is for greater immersion in the story. However, as the days go by, I realize that this is a crutch that should be abandoned by storytellers.

If you don’t like my position, I understand, but if you give me a few minutes, I think I may sway you to my side of the discussion. Though if you want the brief take, here goes. Ultimately, whenever you present your audience with as many details as possible, you risk diluting the effectiveness of your narrative.

For those who want to see the inner workings of that claim allow me to elaborate by highlighting the core problem with that position. No two people are the same. Whatever the storyteller might see as disheartening, frightful, or terrifying, there’s no guarantee that every member of the audience will share those beliefs. While I have a couple threads to weave here, let’s focus on a specific example that has stuck with me for years, and was the original seed for this thought. Despite the name of the series eluding my memory (though I believe it’s from the Wheel of Time), let alone the specific book I’m referencing, the rough shape seared itself into my mind the moment I consumed the words.

The important details of this study revolve around a prisoner and a handful of allies. The detained individual has crucial information the allies need. And as you might expect, he’s unwilling to share those facts with his captors. After a brief deliberation among the allies, one of them steps forward, taking control of the situation. He stares at the captive and rattles off a list of things he’ll need to convince their prisoner to surrender the needed information. Before anyone can retrieve any of the requested items, the prisoner breaks, surrendering all the details he can provide.

This might seem like just a random story, but the important aspect comes after the prisoner is taken away. Once the prisoner’s out of eyesight, another ally stepped forward and asked how the man planned on using the listed goods to convince the prisoner to blab his secrets. While the specific quote eludes me, a close approximation of the response is, “I don’t know. I’ve never had to come up with a plan. Their own minds come up with the worst potential outcome.”

That simple exchange highlights the power of imagination. While every storyteller needs to convey details to keep the audience engaged, they need to be careful not to dump too much on the audience. Whenever too many details are provided, the writer/director risks losing the portion of the audience that feels they’re being pandered to.

Some will say there was too much, while others will say there wasn’t enough. The best way to appease every member of the audience is to limit the specifics and allow their imagination to fill in the gaps, just like the prisoner who worried about what his captors were going to do to him with the random list of items. Here’s another example to consider: if a horror movie relies on an excess of violence to achieve its desired outcome, there will be those who just aren’t affected, because of the constant push for hyper realism.

However, the same scene can simply hint at the violence by showing bits of the aftermath and the reaction of key characters. By doing this, the audience can create a mental image of what could have happened to the individual. This simple change allows the imagination of every member of the audience to create their own frightful scene that would have caused both the devastation and the horror of the reacting characters.

In our endeavor to chase hyper realism, producers and storytellers have forgotten about the most important tool at their disposal, the active imagination of the audience. As they continue to forgo that crucial and important friend, the audiences willing to consume these hyper-realistic bits of entertainment dwindle, as people continue to be left wanting.