Monday, May 19, 2014

Death by Description (#amwriting)

Goodness. We all know that every scene has to move your story forward by either developing plot or character. But I didn't realize how important that concept is until I read two very different books - it's literally a crucial part of keeping the reader reading.

Have you ever opened a book you really wanted to love only to find yourself drowning in description? You plug in those earphones good and tight, set out for the garden with your favorite shovel in hand, and wouldn't you know it: the crime thriller you hoped to enjoy while hilling the potatoes turns into a boring recitation of what kind of watch the main character's niece is wearing, the brand of espresso machine in the office, where to find the various types of coffee in the cupboard, and musings by the main character about how grateful she is to find a male assistant with fashion sense who selects appropriate clothes for her day. All sprinkled with back-story details that knock the reader (me) right out of the current story.

A crime novel by a big bestselling author with no murder, kidnapping, or any kind of violence in the first CD-and-a-half of the audio book. *yawn* All I know at this point is that someone is missing. Maybe on purpose, maybe not. Maybe it has something to do with dinosaur bones. I don't care. I'm just grateful I borrowed the book from the library rather than buying it.

Thankfully, relief was at hand. After turning off the CDs and finishing with the potatoes, I opened The Last Detective by Robert Crais. Yeowza. We start off with Joe Pike facing a brown bear up in the Alaskan wilderness. Pike is struggling to recover from gunshot wounds and is uncertain about how to reclaim his emotional serenity. Then BAM! we're at Elvis Cole's house and within the first five pages, his girlfriend's son (who Cole is babysitting) goes missing. From that point on, the book is bare bones on description and it absolutely blazes. I cared so much about the spunky kidnapped kid, who snatched him, and why they might've done it that I had to put the book in another room so I wouldn't burn dinner.

A crime novel by a big bestselling author with kidnapping, relationship stress, a manipulative ex-husband, and a nasty revenge scheme going back decades all in the first few chapters. Roughly equivalent to one audio CD. I was breathless from trying to help find the kid! This is the reason I read - I want to care, I want my heart to pound as the plot thickens, I want to have to turn that next page at the peril of a stovetop fire.

What was the difference between the two books? Pace. Detail. And character development. Crais laid down a plot that moves and trusted his readers to get the Cole / Pike back-story with only a few details. His characters (other than Cole and Pike) are sketches. I can barely describe them, but I know the role they played in the whole nasty affair. Maybe the first author was easing into her story and all the details would eventually matter. I think it's more likely that she was finding the story as she wrote and didn't take the time to go back and edit out the unimportant descriptions. I don't know. I stopped caring. And then I stopped reading.

It's a risk every writer faces - falling in love with our words to the point that we lose the reader, or not being diligent enough to ensure we rip out what doesn't matter.

What about you? How much detail is too much, how little is too little? Does your preference vary based on genre, or are you a patient reader no matter the level of description?


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  2. Timely topic, Gae-Lynn. I just laid aside a book (this was sci-fi) that got so bogged down in minutia that the story choked. I'm sure the author thought he was adding richness, but when the vast majority of all that descriptive detail of everything was never brought into the story it became pointless. And boring. I say if you want to force the reader to see every scene just as you envision it, go produce a movie. Readers need a little leeway to use their imaginations ... but just a little. We need to know who the players are and what motivates them, where things play out and important details that set the scene, but I don't need to know what color underwear someone is wearing unless it's important to the story ... like if that's all they're wearing!

    1. Using your imagination is what reading is all about to me. I have a movie running in my head while I read and like you, I want to make up the little stuff. Give me the big important stuff and I'll decide on underwear colors (or commando) on my own!

      Thanks, Doug!