Derailed by Details

by Laura Belgrave

  You're not likely to pick up a novel for kids that doesn't name the story's characters and mention their ages and hair color, too. For that matter, if you're writing a novel yourself, you've probably created something of a little history for each character. You know where they live. You know what music they like. You know the names of their best friends and teachers.

Well and good. That's as it should be.

But just because you're privy to all that information doesn't mean you have to use every last bit of it. If you do, you risk derailing your novel faster than a speeding locomotive. (I've always wanted to use that cliché somewhere, and now I have.)

Too many details, placement of those details--and more importantly, the wrong kinds of details--fog the story and kill the pace. As you can imagine, "fog" and "kill" in the same sentence do not bode well for you.

So what are too many details? In most cases, they're simply clusters of information well beyond what a reader needs to know. For instance, in describing your new neighbor's hair to your spouse you might remark that it's brown or auburn. If you were going really wild, you might say that your neighbor has short brown hair, or curly auburn hair. Either way, in the end you've provided a snapshot image, and most often it's plenty good enough. Your husband or wife has sufficient detail to form an image.

Put that same information in a juvenile novel, though, and if you're like a lot of new authors, something mysterious happens. Details grow. And grow and grow and grow. The neighbor becomes someone with short, lackluster, thin brown hair. I think this happens because, well, writers just don't feel like they're writing if they don't put down a lot of words. The problem is, too much of a good thing doesn't leave much to a young reader's imagination.

Of course, there are times when every one of those details might, in fact, be important. But they don't all have to be presented in one breath. Better to ease them into the story in strategic locations. Spoon feed, don't force feed.

More serious instances in which too many details can derail a story occur when authors think they need to account for every moment of a character's day. Typically, their stories begin with a character waking up, marching down the stairs to breakfast, trotting off to school, eating lunch in the cafeteria, coming home, doing homework, talking on the phone, eating dinner and then marching up the stairs and going to bed. Along the way, authors stuff in details about how the character got dressed, what the character ate for breakfast, how long the walk to school was and . . . well, you get the point.

It's simply too much detail when in reality, probably only one or two significant events occurred during the character's entire day. To make this easier, let's say the book is yours, and let's call the character Bonnie. Let's assume that the significant event in Bonnie's day is an argument at lunch with her boyfriend. That's the real scene. Maybe it's even the point of the whole chapter. So what if you were to strip out the dull stuff and go for the jugular, kind of like this:

Bonnie sprinted out of bed, wolfed down a bagel and made it to class before the second bell. She looked forward to relaxing at lunch, but the moment she saw Brett's face, she knew it wasn't going to happen. The veins on his neck were popping out before he even got to her table. She braced herself for the fight she knew was coming.
What happens after that, of course, is a fabulous fight scene (which may or may not end up with spaghetti being thrown; dealer's choice, after all.) The scene includes lots of punchy, realistic dialogue. And naturally, you've done more showing than telling, right?

Afterward, it's time to get Bonnie home. Go for the jugular again. You might disengage from the scene and perhaps conclude the whole chapter sort of like this:

Brett's words rang in Bonnie's ears for the rest of the day. She floated through her afternoon classes without absorbing a word, and by the time she fell into bed that night, she had a headache the size of Missouri. What she didn't have was Brett. He was out of her life for good this time.
Understand that you could've made any number of dramatic choices in cutting to the chase. You could've opened the chapter with the fight scene, right from the git-go. Or you might've even opened it just after the fight scene. The point is, you don't need to walk your reader through the minutiae of Bonnie's day. Readers want characters bigger than life. They don't want a Bonnie whose life sounds as dull as their own.

Here's what to ask yourself when you're evaluating whether your own story has too much detail: "Does everything I'm including advance the plot or at least suggest something critical about a character's motivation?" The reality is that every paragraph needs to advance the plot in every scene. Every scene needs to advance the plot in every chapter. Every chapter needs to advance the plot in every book. If describing the way that Bonnie wakes up in the morning doesn't do that, then you've got details that don't belong. And if you've got details that don't belong, you've just derailed your book.

And that's the detail on detail. Start cutting.

Copyright © 1997 by Laura Belgrave

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