Authors, Writers, Publishers, and Book Readers

#7“MapQuest really needs to start their directions on step 5. I'm pretty sure I know how to get out of my neighborhood.”

I agree. Actually, I use MSN Maps and always skip ahead to the point in the trip that is unfamiliar. For those of you planning on using any of these programs, they're pretty handy. Take into account, however, how the mapping system is designed. Is it going to give you the fastest route or the one with the fewest miles?

This truth brings up an interesting discussion in regards to writing. Specifically: how much detail an author includes in a scene/chapter/book.

For instance, take the following. It is totally original and not taken from any story I've read or critiqued. So if this is similar to something you've written, believe me, it's unintentional. (And yours probably should be changed as you'll see in a moment.)

Frank exited the house, making sure he locked and bolted the door behind him. He walked down the flagstone walk with its thousands of fault line cracks. At his 1968 two-tone Dodge charger with the extra wide tires, he withdrew a key from his coat pocket, inserted it into the door and unlocked the vehicle. After climbing behind the wheel and buckling himself in, he engaged the ignition, checked the rearview mirror for any stray object left in the driveway, and shifted the gear into drive. Slowly, he eased his right foot onto the gas pedal and...

Bored yet? Most of a paragraph has been wasted and this guy hasn't even crossed his property line.

There is too much detail, some or most of which, probably isn't important or relevant to either the scene in particular or the story in general. I'm not sure where the term 'fleshing it out' originated, but it's used a lot when critiquing a particular scene where there needs to be more detail. In the above example, there is an abundance of skin. Enough that it warrants surgery.

So, how much detail does one include? Unfortunately, the line is thin and many times, it's a judgment call as to the relevance of the information. This is especially true in character background. Education, military experience, parentage, favorite color, food, soft drink. These may be interesting, but unless they add necessary depth, readers may dismiss them.

Background information needs to be doled out carefully and at appropriate times. A spy recalling a training incident while practicing martial arts and its relation to his current predicament could be important, but the fact he tripped into a lemonade stand at age eight may not. And who cares anyway? Be cautious with character information. Don't get so caught up in your character outline you neglect the story. A hundred factoids may help the author understand the character better, but the author must know when one more piece of trivia is too much.

I'll always remember a particular book I once read. I thought the story boring and the narrative difficult to read. Many people raved about it and some schmoe thought it good enough to make into a movie that didn't get much play. In one scene the heroine stands outside in freezing weather trying not to be noticed by the bad guy. If I remember correctly, the chapter started with background information on how she could withstand cold temperatures for long periods of time without moving. Fantastic ability I thought, but did this tidbit have to go on for two pages?

I'm a big Stephen King fan but I've quit some of his stories when he starts dumping truckloads of information upon me. Tell me a story; don't give me a biography starting with the character coming out of the womb and every moment afterward. I don't care.

Don't you sometimes get to a point in some books where you just want to tell the author, “Get on with it!”?

One of the topics my critique group discusses often is the element of time in a story. Especially during a tense scene like a combat scene or a car chase, or auto accident. What is a character thinking and experiencing and how can an author slow or speed up time to make the scene work? Details. There are times when details are necessary, because they help bring the reader into the scene.

Readers (and especially critique group members) can spot filler in an instant. I raise my hand in guilt about adding filler in one of my stories, but I hope I did it in such a way that rather than bore the reader, I added depth and a mysterious aura to a character. I didn't add an extra flashback scene just to increase the word count.

Remember the saying: The devil's in the details. So true, and if you don't watch out, you may have a devil of a time solving the problem.

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