Wednesday, March 9, 2011

To and Fro? No, No.

Do your characters go to and fro? Many new writers think they need to show the reader every little detail their character does. Like this:

“She took her coat from the back of her chair and put it on while her computer finished shutting down. Then, she put the mouse in its cradle to charge it and pressed the button on the monitor, turning it off. She moved away from her chair, pushed it against her desk, and went to the door. She turned, looked at her desk one last time, flicked off the light, and left, locking things up behind her.”

Yawn. I know. Of course, this kind of writing usually occurs throughout the novel, at every scene change, making readers want to pull their hair out or toss the book across the room.

Writers sometimes need permission to drop the details. They can get so involved with their story that they forget the reader can fill in the blanks. Using the example above, I could’ve written, “She left the office.” We’d understand that she wouldn’t just get up and go without tending to the little details (unless there was an emergency, in which case we’d be more interested in what was pulling her away from work than whether or not she shut down her computer.) However, a writer doesn’t need to take us from Point A to Point B, at least, not every time. Change it up. Sometimes, you’ll want to show the character leave one place and arrive at the next, but you don’t have to bring us along for the ride (unless something is going to happen in the car along the way.) Other times, you can simply add an extra space (or “return”) between paragraphs to show the reader there’s a break in the scene. That way, when Judy leaves the office in one scene and the next scene shows her kicking back in her apartment, the reader won’t be jarred.

Remember the cliché “less is more”. You need enough details so the reader can follow the story, believing she’s experiencing everything through the character’s POV. However, too many details stop the flow of the story and risk losing the reader’s interest.

Have you read novels where the author used too many details and, as a result, you never finished the book? Or, do you skim through the details until you get to “the good stuff”?

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  1. Much as I enjoy minutiae, there are times when it simply becomes boring! Although I'm a new writer, I try to respect the reader and don't wish to patronise by explaining, chapter and verse, what is happening. Great post, thank you.

  2. I do tend to skim through that boring stuff! as well as descriptions that go on too long, detailing where all the furniture stands in the room, or a list of clothing a character is wearing. Yaaaawn!

  3. Carol: I used to skim. Now, more and more, I'm just putting the book down and finding something I actually enjoy.

    Margo: Sounds like you're on the right track.

    Lynnette Labelle

  4. I know exactly what you mean on this. Readers fill in what isn't there, so authors need to trust their readers a little more. The good thing is those things are easy to fix for the most part. :)

  5. Too much description gets me skipping paragraphs. I have not found it as often with some of the books I have been reading, but I have experienced.

    As a writer, I think it can be difficult for us to let go of this problem. Fear that we are leaving too much out. Just another thing to remember about editing.

  6. Great topic, Lynnette--one I still wrestle with on a regular basis.

    I think the detailed play-by-play is common for lots of beginning writers. I often see it when judging contest entries, and I know I was guilty of minutiae overload in my first two manucscripts.
    That said, I now have to make a conscious effort to include enough details. Sometimes in my desire not to bore the reader, I don't give adequate information to ground them in the story. Thank goodness for honest beta readers!

  7. I love the line "drop the details". Definitely something to remember.

  8. I don't think that I do. I try to give the reader some credibility and imagination of their own to know what is going on in a scene without laying it all out there for them. Really enjoyed this post. Thank you.

  9. My crit partner and I have been learning to cut these things out. She found a lot in her own script when characters were going through doors--she'd often mention who opened it and who walked through first! I'm particularly bad when I'm describing action, and it sure stunts the flow. I've found trusting the reader to connect the dots makes for such a better read, and is also less of a headache to write!