A New Yorker piece on the Wachowskis and their struggles to film David Mitchell’s outstanding, complex, centuries-spanning novel Cloud Atlas (opening Oct. 26 with me in line), includes a nice detail about a key difference between novels and movies: detail.
The scene in the control room, for example, features an “orison,” a kind of super-smart egg-shaped phone capable of producing 3-D projections, which Mitchell had dreamed up for the futuristic chapters. The Wachowskis, however, had to avoid the cumbersome reality of having characters running around with egg-shaped objects in their pockets; it had never crossed Mitchell’s mind that that could be a problem. “Detail in the novel is dead wood. Excessive detail is your enemy,” Mitchell told me, squeezing the imaginary enemy between his thumb and index finger.
This revelation fascinates me, because I have always considered detail in my fiction writing an enemy for a different reason: it can elude me.
I always notice in novels how outdoor scenes are set with particular details, often involving specific types of trees or flowers. Which strikes me as a feat, because you could set nearly any tree or flower right in front of me, and I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what kind it is.
But curiously, despite my deficient flora awareness, I always manage to construct some kind of picture in my head of the writer’s scene. Maybe it’s because there’s plenty of room for me to work around the thing I don’t quite get. Go back to Mitchell’s comment: it’s not detail that’s bad, but excessive detail. Make it sparing and judicious, and it works — though perhaps only as a simple nudge. Not that you should get careless — no cactus in your arctic scenes — but maybe the mere application of detail is enough to set the reader to work imagining.