Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Details, Details, Details

Two passages:

“He sat at the kitchen table drinking coffee. He’d have to go out sooner or later.”

“He sat at the stainless steel kitchen table, chosen by his ex-wife and left behind when she moved on, drinking the last of the espresso. He’d have to go out into the cold sooner or later.”

Which passage makes you think you can see the scene? Which one draws you to read on? If I’m not badly mistaken, it’s the second. The old adage is that “the devil is in the details.” But the angel is also in the details. In other words, it’s all about the details.

I’m working on a thriller with a pretty good premise. At 2,000 words a day, it’s humming along. But I hate it. Everyone within earshot has heard me whining about it. If you haven’t heard me, it’s because you haven’t been listening.

The thing is, this is a first draft—what I’m calling a “plot” first draft. It’s one scene after another of who is doing what to whom. Most of the “where” is vague. “Somewhere in Los Angeles.” Somewhere” in Kabul. A few of the characters have made themselves known, but I haven’t bothered to describe them or to describe much of the “place,” where the action is happening. I sometimes mention a polished marble floor here, or a desk there, or a quick glimpse out a window. But that’s about it. And I know that’s why I’m not enjoying the book—because I’m leaving out the details.

In the two passages above, by the end of the first one, you have no idea what “he” looks like or what his “place” is in life. All you know is that he has a table, he drinks coffee, and he has to go out before long. At the end of the second one, you know he’s divorced, and he’s down to his last cappuccino. You also know that he has, or has had, money—to buy the steel table, the cappuccino machine. You know that he let his wife choose the table—does that mean he doesn’t care about furniture? Or that his wife was strong-willed? Or that she was a decorator? You know it’s cold outside and that he hasn’t been out for a while, which may give you some indication of the mood of the story.

I’ve read some manuscripts and even some published books that suffer from the issues that the first passage has. Not that every piece of furniture in a room has to be described, or that every detail of a person’s face has to be described, or that the number of steps leading up to a house has to included. What does have to be included is the “telling” details—the details that indicate something about the character in the scene. So if the point of view character is tied to chair in a strange room, yes he’ll likely look at every single item visible in the room, and we’ll want to know that. If the protagonist is looking at a loved one for the last time, the reader will want to see every detail of that loved person’s face. If your protagonist is walking up to a house he doesn’t want to enter, he might very well count every step.

My point is that it’s the details that make a story worth reading—details that matter. When the details aren’t there, it’s the devil. When they are, it’s the angel.


Polly Iyer said...

Great blog, and I agree, but I'm one who is turned off by TOO MANY details. Your word "telling" is the operative word for me. Details have to mean something, or else they're just words taking up space on the page. One bestselling author describes every bit of clothing of every new character. I don't care what some peripheral character is wearing down to his socks. I just don't. Make description count. This post was a good reminder because I'm on the fourth book of my series, and I am assuming everyone who will read this knows what my characters look like. They might not, so it's a good reminder to go back in and flesh them out. Thanks. :-)

Terry said...

Polly, I once read a Robert B. Parker "Stone" novel and only realized halfway through that he never described any major character--only the minor ones, and then only a stroke or two. He "showed" us his characters by oblique means. It's really important to me not to waste word on unnecessary description. If it's described, it had better be important.

Margie Bunting said...

It really bothers me when there are too few details--especially when I don't even know what the characters look like. It's true, some authors go to the extreme with extraneous details, but when there aren't enough for my taste, I end up with an empty feeling about what I've read.

Terry said...

Exactly, Margie. It think what we're talking about here is that getting it right is hard! Too many details and it gets tedious--not enough and you're left wanting.