How Much Detail?

Detail

How Much Detail?

So, we all know the adage of show not tell. In the preponderance of scenes, showing the protagonist yelling, “Damn right, I’m mad!” is more effective than writing “Sarah was angry.”

To show effectively, you need to be specific in the details of the scene.

Be specific

Not just: Samantha was suddenly alarmed as both men looked like they were about to fight.

But: The two circled each other. Adam raised a clenched fist and suddenly, Brian swung one up, too. “This is crazy!” yelled Samantha. “You think you’re gonna duke it out?”

How much detail is enough?

As I have already discussed in Description Gone Wild, doing static descriptions of the room, the weather, the characters, etc. need to be used carefully to avoid losing the reader’s interest in the plot. But writers also get caught in how much detail to include as part of the story. Let me give you an example.

Larry examined the lightbulb, shaking it, but there was no tell tale rattle of a broken filament. He craned his neck up to the socket and brushed away a possibly imaginary bit of cobweb. “This has been out of commission for a long time,” he thought.  He looked around for the switch. It was way over on the other side of the room, at the base of the stairs. But he could see that the toggle was down. He cupped the bulb and fit it into the socket. Then he began to turn.

Now, under what circumstance could this turgid piece of prose be considered worthwhile including in the story and, more importantly, interesting to the reader?

The automatic answer might be ‘none,’ but there is at least one situation when it might be appropriate. If a bomb is about to go off when the bulb and socket connect, the extreme detail could add suspense. But this is the important bit: the reader must know it’s going to happen.

If she does, then the detail increases tension. If she doesn’t, then all the detail is a nuisance to get through. Even if the bomb goes off at exactly the same spot in the story in both instances.

And if there is no bomb or other significant event attached to the lightbulb, when could it be used?

Answer: Never.

Okay, if changing the lightbulb might be needed for verisimilitude, you could go with:

At the bottom of the stairs, Larry flipped the switch. Nothing. He sighed and headed over to the socket.

And even this little bit isn’t needed if being in the dark has no other function—such as metaphor or foreshadowing.

Don’t fall in love with your writing

Sometimes, when the Muse is with you, your fingers fly over the keyboard and everything which emerges feels like gold. The moments we all live for.

However, in the cold light of day (i.e. editing), it’s not to say that every word created during that glow is still gold. What probably can be retained is the energy of the piece. But be on the look-out for bits that are surplus to requirements.

In short, detail, like description, needs always to be in the service of the story. Even a lovely and evocative element which you would hate to lose must be put under the plot microscope. If it isn’t doing something—even in a minor way—to create the story you want, then consider the chop.

Putting The Past in Context

.context

Putting The Past in Context

Say you’re writing a historical drama where two noblemen of Henry VIII’s court. They engage in all kinds of nefarious plots to prevent the other from being appointed the Gentleman of the Stool. They scheme, poison, scandal-monger, and lie.

You may write a very convincing and even riveting tale of intrigue but it’s not going to catch the reader if he is puzzled as to why the two men want the position. Especially as the main duty seems to be wiping the King’s bottom on the toilet.

You need to contextualize the rivalry. Show the Gentleman of the Stool as the only courtier assured individual and private access to the King. To ask for favors, or turn the King against a rival. Then the rest of the story falls into place.

You may also need to contextualize the past even with more recent events. For example, the novel The Reader by Bernhard Schlink was first published in 1995 in German. A pivot point of the plot, set in World War II, is that the heroine goes to great lengths to conceal that she is illiterate. A literate 1995 audience may not understand why the shame was so great. The reader needs to understand how or why or if the context affects how open the secret is.

Putting context into the past

So, how do you do this?

Not, of course, by hitting the reader over the head by using a long passage of tell to provide the context.

But you might have one of the noblemen musing what he could do if he got the preferment he desired. Or show a boy being made fun of because he can’t read.

So take a look at the story you’re writing. On the one hand, being specific and tangible is a strength of any tale. On the other, it can be so unique that it is puzzling to the reader who has not been in that situation. Identify any things which might impede understanding of the story.

But also remember that readers can often pick up the meaning or context as they go along and take some pleasure in being able to figure it out. So, don’t go crazy with this context business. Only the really important bits.

Not just the past

Actually, contextualizing is appropriate in any situation where you think that your desired audience is not of the culture you are writing about.  An LGBTQ  story aimed at those outside the community may need to explain aspects of the context which might be unfamiliar to an outsider.

For example, in the translation of a Swedish (I think it was Swedish) novel, the hero says hello to a man on a ladder, painting a house. The painter almost loses his balance in surprise. The author kindly provided a footnote to explain that speaking to strangers was unusual in Sweden (Sweden?).

So, don’t go crazy but also don’t lessen the power of your saga by forgetting to provide the appropriate context.

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

history

Using Your History can Hurt Your Writing

This post is proof that I can argue from both sides of my mouth. Or, more kindly, I can see both sides of the argument. In the last post, I discussed how to use your own life history to enrich a fictional piece. And generally, I think it’s a good idea.  But sometimes it can backfire. Especially if the scene morphs into more auto-biography than originally intended. Then it can cause problems.

You avoid crucial scenes

One way to avoid the dangerous bits of personal history is to skim over or leave them out.

One writer was telling the story of a foster child whose foster parents wanted to adopt her. However, at the time, and in that locale, the birth mother had to give her permission. The ‘I’ character had to talk to her mother for the first time in years. This is my re-creation of how she handled the scene.

I stood at the door, knowing my mother was already inside. I couldn’t bring myself to grab the handle. What if she says no? What if she wants me back? My stomach churned. But I took a deep breath and pulled the door open.

When I came out of the room, I closed the door gently behind me. The tears I had been able to hold in now flooded my eyes so I could barely see. Thank god! Thank god!

So, here, the writer has avoided the uncomfortable bits by almost literally closing the door on us. Something happens in that room which turns out well but we are just told about it, rather than shown the scene between the mother and the ‘I’ character.

In this way, you protect yourself against having to possibly relive painful feelings but rob the reader of what is compelling in your story.

Your writing goes flat

Another way writers sometimes try to avoid raw feelings is to write the scene, say the one between the birth mother and the ‘I’ character, but make quite clinical or fact based. I’ll give a try at showing this.

My mother didn’t look that different from what I remembered. Smaller but that was probably me.

She kissed me lightly on the cheek. “My, how you’ve grown.”

We sat down at the table. I began. “I want to be adopted by the Warnsleys. But I have to get your permission.”

My mother paused for a moment and then said, “Well, I guess that would be for the best.”

“Well, thanks.”

Honestly, do you buy this? I don’t. We know the ‘I’ character was afraid the mother will say no, so how come no reaction from her when she says yes? In addition, this is presumably a big thing for the mother—how come she acquiesces so easily? Wouldn’t she try to justify why she had to put the ‘I’ character into foster care or regret  losing whatever tenuous relationship she has now with her daughter?

In short, I think the writer is primarily concerned with protecting herself from old feelings but in the process, has produced flat writing.

I know it’s hard, but to truly write well, you have to risk appearing naked on the page. If you cover yourself up carefully, even in fiction, the reader won’t see a real person or a compelling story. And isn’t that what you are aiming for?

 

 

Writing about Therapy Sessions

therapy

Writing about Therapy Sessions

What can I say? Writers, while not necessarily crazy (sorry, with mental health issues), nonetheless seem to be not infrequent users of therapy in various forms. And there is the whole write-what-you-know thing. So, sooner or later, we try to depict a therapy session.

And it almost always falls flat.

Not because you are a crummy writer but because of the nature of therapy. As those of us who have addressed our problems this way know, it is iterative, repetitive and slow process which takes a long time to get results. All things anathema to story.

So, if you try to truly reflect conversation in a session, you’re likely to get a boring, going nowhere mess which contributes little to the story.

How about speeding things up?

One option is, of course, to telescope the process in the novel. This compression in other areas is often quite justifiable to maintain the momentum of the story. So, the main character is completely open to all the suggestions made by the counsellor, integrates the learning with lightning speed, and is back on the right track in no time. She goes from mistrusting the world to complete and utter belief in the innate goodness of humanity.

First of all, sucky tale. You’ve removed all the struggles and conflict that makes a narrative hum. But more importantly for our purposes, completely unrealistic. Because we know in our own lives, with or without guidance, change doesn’t happen that way. Change is iterative, repetitive and slow.

How to avoid writing therapist scenes

Despite this, the insights that come with therapy may be pivotal to your plot. So how do you write about it without writing about it?

First, you probably need a scene establishing that your protagonist is seeing a therapist. But it might be the first session, where the main character illustrates the real reason she is embarking on this process. She thinks it’s because her family is so difficult but her defensiveness and the sharp tongued way she communicates cues the reader that there are other issues. Tricky to write, but if done well, it provides the reader with important information early on.

From there forward, the therapist might not figure prominently at all. But the main character might recall something learned in therapy which she applies to the present point in the plot. You might even be able to get away with a short—very short—scene where the protagonist comes to a significant revelation which we then see her applying it to refocusing her actions and life.

So you might be able to get the juice out of these sessions without having to do all the peeling, pitting, and dissecting which actually occurs.

If you must write about therapy

It is possible that your plot is integrally tied to depicting therapy sessions.

The only thing I have ever seen which did this effectively was an originally Israeli series, adapted to North American audience called In Treatment. In it, a therapist treated four different patients. And it works. Even though the whole series takes place inside the therapist’s office and the patients are just basically telling the therapist their stories.

So, if you must, you would do well to study why this tell-not-show approach works. If it’s the acting or direction, then you’re sunk. If it is the extremely clever writing (and I suspect it is), study how the writers made it work. Unless of course, it’s just bloody magic.

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

orwell

Orwell’s Six Rules for Writing

So you know George Orwell’s famous novels like Animal Farm and 1984. In addition, he set down Six Rules for Writing which are:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

All good advice but I want to focus on two of them: #2 in this post and #3 in the next.  The action called for is self-evident but writers don’t always seem to understand the logic behind them. And because the reasoning isn’t obvious, it may not be clear why they embody such wisdom and are so worth following.

Rule 2: Never use a long word where a short one will do.

On the surface, it’s hard to imagine why it matters. Long words abound. Politicians can use them to cloud the issue. I would never obfuscate on such a monumentally portentous issue.  But medical people can use them for precision. It involves the integumentary system. Sports use terms particular to their activity. Wow, that guy just got posterized.

But generally, although long words might delight the writer’s instinct for the new and different, most readers are not fascinated with the words themselves but more focused on the unfolding story.

Here’s an example and an alternative.

Example—meandered

She meandered through the forest, her ambulatory exercise freeing her mind to address the shattering decisions preying on her psyche.

Applying rule 2 to the example

Walking through the forest freed her mind up to think about the decisions worrying her.

Discussion

I know the first sentence is over the top but it’s possible that the second sentence might feel as if it lacks drama or even interest. You might be right. However, if you look carefully, the drama in the first example, such as it is, comes from the writer telling you how to feel about the heroine’s issues (shattering, preying).

In the revamp we know the heroine is worried, but we’re not directed by the writer on how to feel about it. Presumably, he’ll show us what’s worrying her and we can decide ourselves how shattering and predatory the issues are.

So, you don’t need to, nor should you, have one sentence do all the work or all the reader’s thinking. Plain, short words present the action in a clear and understandable way. It’s up to you to build them into a compelling story.

Situations where Orwell’s rule 2 might not apply

Sometimes, the longer word is preferable because of its precision. Take the word disingenuous. Other, shorter, words—like dishonest—might be similar but ‘disingenuous’ has the particular implication of being deceitful knowingly. It is built into the word. A person might be dishonest without realizing it—from lack of knowledge, etc. Using ‘disingenuous’ removes that possibility.

So, use a longer word to capture accuracy. However, and especially if it’s an esoteric long word, don’t pack it closely together with others of the same ilk.

In short, long words if needed but not as a way to show off how learned you are (which I know you are).

Next post: Rule Three: Cutting out words.

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