How Much 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.

Orwell and Rule Three


Orwell and Rule Three

In the previous post, I listed Six Rules for Writing  created by George Orwell and focused on why Rule 2 (Never use a long word where a short one will do) is so important for writers. In this post, I want to talk about Rule 3.

Rule Three: If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

On the surface, this has a ho-hum, yeah, yeah feeling to it. Sort of like your dentist reminding you to floss. Sure, I’ll do it when I have a minute.

And the ‘always cut it out.’ A bit extreme, surely. Discuss among yourselves.


Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Seems okay, no? Let’s see what happens when you cut words. This bit was 43 words.

Applying Rule 3 to the example

Alex hid among the bushes, with hands trembling and knees weak. He knew he might have to run at any moment but he wasn’t sure his legs would hold up. He tried to slow his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.

Here is the cleaned up version.

Alex hid among the bushes. Hands trembling. Knees weak. He might have to run at any moment but would his legs hold up? He slowed his breath. I can do this. I’ve got this.


See what a difference cutting words can make? Tightening up the word count also tightened up the tension. It more closely mimicked Alex’s staccato breathing and thinking. It pulls the reader into the scene more effectively.

The number of words cut wasn’t that great. 43 in the original. 34 in second version. Nine word difference which makes all the difference.

(Although almost 20% of the sentence was cut. That’s a lot over the course of a manuscript.)

Obviously, what and where you cut is a judgement call. For example, Alex is repeating himself when he thinks I can do this. I’ve got this. I decided it was worth leaving both statements as a reflection of the kind of self-talk a person in his situation might do.

Cutting words helps heighten tension in a scene but is effective with all types of writing.

It helps the reading flow for readers. I’m not sure that extra words get in the reader’s way so much as slow her down. Extra words which don’t need to stand in-between her and your exciting climax.

Situations where the Orwell rule 3 might not apply

So, being an enthusiastic proponent of Rule 3, I have discovered that it can be taken too far. An obvious problem is if you cut so much that you confuse the reader.

But I have discovered a penchant which actually hurts the reading. I love to cut thats. I could have written (from above): An obvious problem is if you cut so much you confuse the reader.

The ‘that’ is cut and the sentence is still understandable. However, if you do it too much, the reader is kicked out of the continuous dream. My beta readers reported that, over the course of the novel, they had to reread certain sentences. The grammar was correct but dropping the ‘that’ violated their expectations and made them focus on the language itself rather than the story. A focus which is the writer’s job not the reader’s.

But I’d still say, cut, cut, cut.




Foreshadowing is a literary technique used to allow writers to hint at an event which is in the offing. It has gotten a bad name and for good reason. It is often done clumsily and as a substitute for a good story. An example:

Mary entered the ballroom. It was all shine and glass. Suddenly, she heard a large clap behind her. She whirled. The floor to ceiling mirror had a large crack. And as if in slow motion, the pieces loosened from the frame and toppled to the ground. “I have a bad feeling about this,” she thought.

Okay, so I went for the clichés. But there are plenty others. Stormy weather to denote disturbance in the characters’ world. Ravens or crows abounding doom. Spilled wine presages flowing blood. A shattered mirror portents the destruction of a life, a hope, an idyll. Or even, as in the piece above, a character saying, “I have a bad feeling about this.”

The intent of all of these is to signal to the reader that something BIG is coming.

Foreshadowing versus building tension

The reason I don’t favor foreshadowing much is that I think writers can sometimes use it as a proxy. Instead of putting the time and effort into building tension in a story, they figuratively and sometimes literally tell the reader, oh, this is going to get exciting, oh, you’re going to be so surprised, look at how tense things are getting. It’s sort of a tell in that the writer isn’t necessarily constructing a plot which builds and builds tension so the reader can decide herself when she’s excited, surprised, or tense. Instead, the writer signals the expected response. Let’s try the Mary-ballroom thing again.

Mary entered the ballroom, checking to make sure she was alone. She sauntered down the large space, noting the floor-to-ceiling mirrors, and the sunshine bouncing off the highly polished floors. “Like a downmarket Versailles,” she thought. And then she smiled.

Obviously, you need more than a couple of lines to build good, rip-roaring tension. But in this segment, there are possible clues in Mary’s actions. She makes sure that she’s alone which might suggest furtiveness but then she sauntered in the room which is more associated with being carefree. And what was it with the thought about downmarket and the smile? Why did she do that?

You can build tension through the character’s actions rather than tired old tropes.

Good foretelling

I don’t want to suggest that foreshadowing is never appropriate. But it needs to be subtle, perhaps so subtle that the reader, at most, takes it in unconsciously. Then it can be quite effective. The novelist Carol Shields advocates the use of foreshadowing so that “when the denouement arrives, it will both surprise and satisfy some level of expectation[1].” When used well, it can contribute to the reader’s feeling that the ending was the ‘right’ one.

So, when/if you use foreshadowing, apply with a light hand. Leave the hammers for stories that start out with It was a dark and stormy night.

[1] Shields, Carol, Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing Random House, Canada, 2006

Creating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

narratorsCreating Reliably Unreliable Narrators

In the last post, we talked about ways in which unreliable narrators can be unreliable. This post will take the types discussed last time and work through what you need to make each sort unreliable but still credible.

Narrators with believable unreliability

We believe her from the get-go

In this type, we don’t know until the end that the narrator wasn’t telling the truth. You need to pay attention to:

Keep the reader entertained. Because the big reveal is at the end, you need to keep the unsuspecting reader interested. The story must work as a story, even without the twist ending. Otherwise, the reader may not bother to keep reading.

Drop hints.  Having said that, drop hints along the way that the reader will not pick up as significant until the ending and which allow him to re-evaluate what he thought was happening.

Have a good reason for the ending. That is, the shock ending must make sense in the context of the story. If it doesn’t, you risk a Deus ex Machina. Or in the vernacular, your reader will be left with a what-the-hell? feeling. So, “I was unreliable just because I thought it would be fun,” doesn’t cut it.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Here, the suspicion comes up somewhere in the story that the heroine isn’t truthful.

Keep clues ambiguous.  For as long as you can, keep the clues as to the heroine’s real nature equivocal. Did she not see Larry or was she avoiding him? The longer you can keep the reader guessing, the better.

Resolve ambiguity.  I suppose it’s possible to end the novel with the reader no wiser than when he started. Might work but prepare for lots of angry letters. Because the reader has a theory of what is going on, he needs an ending that has him shouting either, “Ah ha! I knew I was right!” or “Wow, I didn’t see that coming! “ Either way, the ending can’t just whimper off. It needs a clear resolution.

Pretty sure she’s lying

Cue early on. Very early on, let the reader know what kind of story you’re planning. The heroine being taller than a tree would do it as would her boast of being faster than a car.

Have satisfying ending.  The ending needs to pull all the exaggeration and fibs together in some way. I know this sounds a bit vague but you are going for your reader smiling at the ridiculousness of the ending while still finding it satisfying. It doesn’t have to be any more likely or true than the rest of the story but it has to feel like it coalesces the disparate elements.

Believes what she is saying

Make heroine’s assumptions credible. This type is very similar to the first type in that we need to believe what the heroine believes. If her flights of fancy are too obvious, the reader may start to doubt her.

Drop clues, of course. But again, the clues need to be super carefully laid. If the reveal is to work, the reader cannot pull out of the continuous dream to think, “Really? If she believes this, why is she doing that?”

This might be a walk-before-you-run thing

My inclination would be to avoid using unreliable narrators until you’re pretty comfortable writing reliable ones. It’s challenging enough to create a believable tale; it’s even tougher juggling the conventions of the novel if you’re still working on getting the rules down pat.

The Unreliable Narrator


The Unreliable Narrator

Generally speaking, we assume that whoever is telling the story is telling the truth (including fictional truth). In fact, as we discussed in authority of the author, trusting the narrator can be critical to allowing your reader to sink happily into your world. But an interesting twist on this convention is to purposely present your reader with a first person chronicler who is unreliable.

Why use an unreliable narrator?

An unreliable narrator can create tension and intrigue. If we start to doubt the story-teller, then we will be unsure whether what she says is true. This can keep the reader guessing and second guessing what’s really going on. It’s basically playing with your reader’s mind, but if you do it right, he’ll love you for it. There are various ways to use this phenomenon.

Types of untrustworthy story-tellers

This is not an exhaustive list but here are some ways the reader can interact with this unusual heroine. This is all about the extent to which we believe her and when we start to doubt her.

We believe her from the get-go

From the beginning often to the bitter end, we believe the heroine is being straight with us. This novel uses the typical structure where the narrator’s veracity is taken for granted. Only near the end does it become clear that the heroine has been misleading us from the first page.

A famous example is The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie. The narrator is Doctor Sheppard who lives next to detective Hercule Poirot. He records his often humorous reactions to Poirot’s investigation of Roger Ackroyd’s death. He is astute and charming. He is also the murderer.  Which we only find out right at the end.

We’re not sure of whether she’s telling the truth

Either at the beginning, or as the novel progresses, we suspect that the narrator isn’t completely honest. We doubt whether we can trust the story as it is being told.

Sebastian Faulks, in his brilliant novel, Engleby, creates a character who seems a bit odd from the first. He doesn’t quite fit into university life. He makes casual reference to his therapist. Not that unusual but the astute reader’s antennae are probably up. He is interested in a girl but is reluctant to approach her. Shy? He follows her around, wishing to connect. One day, he sees her drop an envelope. He picks it up. And reads the contents!  And steals more of her letters.

Now we’re pretty sure we can’t trust Engleby but we are kept on our toes by constantly trying to figure out what he’s up to. The ending is surprising but satisfying.

Pretty sure she’s lying

We’ve all heard tall tales—about fishing, mountaineering, writing, etc. The reader is not expected to believe the tale but enjoy the way the story is told, or how cleverly the writer weaves together unrelated items so his heroine can accomplish what she wants. Mark Twain used this technique in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

Believes what she is saying

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier is the classic example of using a narrator who is undependable, not because she is willfully trying to deceive, but because she herself believes the story she’s telling. The heroine has impulsively married Maxim de Winter, only to find, she believes, that de Winter is still in love with his dead wife, Rebecca. She continues to build on her premise, only to find at the end, that she is completely mistaken.

As you can see, this technique gives you plenty of scope to juggle the normal pieces of a novel and come up with something really interesting. The next post discusses how you go about creating Unreliable Narrators.