How much detail do you include about stuff in your story, and where do you put it?
Usually, when we are new, we misplace the information and tell it at the wrong time, and in too much detail. A recent story I critiqued had a big, solid cop sitting down to watch TV with his friend. The cop “plopped” onto the couch.
Did the writer tell me the cop was heavy when he plopped down? No, he told he when the character was introduced – when I didn’t need that information, and when it wasn’t relevant.
Fold that stuff in when it matters if at all.
Skinny people don’t plop onto a couch. Heavy people do.
See? Less is more.
Another story explained that a red 4-door Jeep Wrangler drove up to a yellow, three bedroom, two bathroom, split-level ranch house.
I asked two simple questions: do we need this level of detail and do we need it now?
Usually, the answers are NO and NO.
And in that case, the car and house had NO impact on the story. Why did the author put it in? She thought she needed to. She didn’t. Kurt Vonnegut said if it doesn’t develop the characters or advance the plot, leave it out.
Easier said than done, but that’s why we review the first draft and delete 15% – 30% of it. (See more about critiquing and editing your own stories HERE)
My friend cast a stray comment in among her many valuable observations of one of my stories. The MC wrecks his car, but I never said what kind of car it was.
“I’m wondering what kind of car the MC drives.”
It’s a logical question because she doesn’t yet know if that is important for later in the story, and if it is needed, she’s saying here’s the place to tell us.
Does it matter what he drives? Or that he drinks Coke? Is it easier to say “Coke” than a million different ways to say “soda” – and create some off putting word choices?
The more ambiguous I make it, the more the reader fills in the details, but only to a point. I still have to write a story. (Learn about putting yourself out there as an author, HERE) So if it was necessary to tell about the car, I’d find him a nice respectable Lexus or something just under BMW/Porsche/Mercedes, because they fantasize about a Porsche in the story. Well, Sam does. And it can’t even be a blip on the MC’s radar screen, because he doesn’t care about cars.
If I have their child get into a car seat and he looks over the seat at her, it is probably a four door car. If it needs to be an SUV, maybe I’d drop in a line about driving a big vehicle or being annoyed on the highway at drivers in smaller, more maneuverable cars.
Probably, the reader decides what kind of car it is based on other things. More on that in a minute.
Other things I don’t describe.
What does the MC Mike look like? Does he have brown hair or blond? Brown eye or blue? Or green?
He is me, but taller and not as fat. Brown hair, brown eyes, I’m 5’10” but he’s probably 6′. What does Sam look like, other than she has a nice figure? I never say.
Julietta, meanwhile, we get in huge detail, so the contrast is obvious – and underscores the importance of her appearance (and for more reasons than the obvious ones; we need to remember it for later). The MC notices such things, but only on occasion. His daughter’s classmate’s mom, for example; he notices how well put together she is. He doesn’t describe Dr Jan (who is slim, tall, blonde, blue eyes, probably with fake boobs). He only describes the slutty neighbor because she’s being so overboard with her sluttiness.
We make a LOT of assumptions because he gives Sam an expensive watch for her work anniversary. We assume he has a nice, big house because of that; I don’t get into it. Atlanta has some shitty suburbs.
Part of this lack of giving detail is laziness, and part of it is style.
(Do your friends walk up to you and say, “Hi, I’m your 5’10” friend Dan with brown eyes and brown hair?) Mike’s tall because women in heels look up to speak with him. He has a good physique because his doctor says so. That’s about it. If we are familiar with people, aka friends, we have that already. Yes but you processed that the first time you met them. That’s fair. But…
I want the characters to be familiar to the reader, and telling readers things makes them realize we aren’t already good friends.
The more you give the less they have, the less they fill in, the less attached they are.
Sometimes, less is more.
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Dan Alatorre is the author of several bestsellers and the hilarious upcoming novel “Poggibonsi” – yeah, we know. We’re trying to convince him to change that title – check out his other works here http://www.amazon.com/Dan-Alatorre/e/B00EUX7HEU/ref=sr_ntt_srch_lnk_1?qid=1425128559&sr=1-1 and check back often for interesting stuff.