Friday, October 29, 2010

Details, Details...

One of the problems a writer faces when crafting a story is the amount of detail to put in each scene. Put too little and the reader is confused, wondering what the hec is going on. Too much and the reader gets bogged down by unnecessary minutiae.

For instance: if a new character is introduced, how much detail you put in the description can depend on how important that character is to the story.

A patrolman cordoning off a crime scene has little impact on the overall plot, hence you don't need to provide hair and eye color, height, weight, tattoos, facial features, specific clothing, manner of speech, etc. Maybe just a something to distinguish him. “The patrolman's size easily intimidated the gathering crowd from pressing too close.”

However, someone you see often, such as the protagonist or a supporting character, should be detailed so readers can keep the person in the mind's eye. You know early on Mallory Petersen, star of Beta (due out July 15,
2011) is a six foot attractive blonde with blue eyes. You know her sidekick/secretary, Darren, has puppy dog eyes and an innocent face.

Of course, if the bad guy is someone you're presenting elsewhere in the story, you're not going to reveal the identity in those little scenes just showing his evilness. You're going to save the identity until the end and by that time, the reader has already met and been associated with the specific character. An exception may be is if the bad guy isn't part of the regular crew but is a totally separate character presented as only bad and isn't hanging around the good guys trying to hide.

I've recently run into a few scenes where the details are lacking, improper, or I question their placement within the scene. Taking the third instance first, the scene is action oriented, with the hero battling killer vampires and in the middle of the fight, her protection spell seriously affects the one who grabbed her. She then spends three lengthy paragraphs explaining the different magical spells available in her version of the vamp/magic universe. Then she goes back to the fight. I'm not sure if in the middle of almost getting killed is the appropriate place for a lecture. Apparently the author's editor deemed it acceptable.

I'm also reading another vampire story where one of the humans is performing surgery on a vamp who has been impaled by a barbed stake. I think this is a cool and potentially powerful scene, however, the medical details and facts are lacking as well as a logical progression of action. For instance, imagine the vamp impaled by a stake. The stake has penetrated through the body and is sticking out both sides. When the person performing the surgery starts operating, the patient's angle isn't going to allow for ease of motion. Plus, the instruments normally used to open a chest cavity aren't normally going to be found in a kitchen. The author needs a little research to bring realism to the scene (realism to the surgery, not the realism of a vampire).

Robin Cook is great at medical terminology. His latest novel, Cure, is chock full of very lengthy words of which I understand about two percent. Most of the time, however, he's good at translating doctor talk into layman's terms.

The second instance-improper detail-I've read several times. It tends to bog down the story. “He walked over to the cupboard and opened the door. Upon the shelves were plates and a humidor. He took the humidor off the shelf, opened the lid and withdrew a cigar. With precise motions, he cut the end off the cigar, struck a match and lit the end. Taking deep inhalations,he held the smoke in his lungs and upon releasing it, created smoke circles in the air.” Okay, fine, but he did all this while having a conversation with one or two other people and by all this 'stuff' inserted, the reader has lost the discussion.

Two authors at the opposite ends of the spectrum for detail. The late Robert B. Parker and his Spenser novels are not too detailed, especially when Spenser is engaged in a lengthy conversation with...well, any other character. The conversation flows almost without interruption for several pages. It reminds me of the old Dragnet TV shows. “Just the facts, ma'am.” While Joe Friday just blandly stands there.

H.P. Lovecraft's stories, however, are LOADED with detail, sometimes beyond the point of sanity. At The Mountains of Madness is especially difficult to read unless you are into Lovecraftian stuff. I've read that particular story at least three times and the first two I didn't understand what I was reading because I couldn't get past the details.

Be careful with details. They're important but my advice is to treat them like candy. Give them out as treats, but hold back when the child has had his fill.

No comments: