Not Too Many Details, Please

When I first started out writing it was impressed upon me how important detail was in my narrative.

I want to feel the flowers I want to smell the flowers I want to breath through your pages.

I can’t deny narrative is powerful stuff. Many a novel is saved by the sharp voice of the narrator alone – the whimsical flights of fancy that really has nothing to do with the story being told, but is charming nevertheless. But I cry out whenever I read a story with too much insignificant detail, each action of each character lovingly described until it becomes unbearably stilted.

It’s extremely hard to demonstrate in a post, but let me try my best:

She got up from bed and stared at the unfamiliar room. It was old and grey and smelt of talcum powder. With a rush she realized it reminded her of her childhood.

She decided to go downstairs and make herself a cup of coffee. As she descended the grime on the windows by the staircases caught her eye. I’ll have to clean that up after I complete my paperwork, she told herself, and then she swept into the kitchen.

The kitchen was purple and tiled, and smelt of yesterday’s coffee. She wondered if coffee was all it was ever going to smell of. She flipped a switch and the humming of the coffee maker filled the room, mechanical and annoying.

She wondered how much of this house was of use to her. The cracked purple tile of the kitchen was charming when she first bought the house, but it was now starting to bore her. Her appliances were last decade, but the kitchen was last century. It was mismatched, and not in a good way. She filed away at her fingernails, watching the skin flake away. Must be the detergent I’m using, she thought, I’ll have to switch brands soon.

Okay. I admit there’s nothing wrong about the above extract, but there’s nothing unbelievably great about it either. It doesn’t hook you, it doesn’t give you an insight to how a character works – you can’t possibly tell if ‘she’ is the type of woman to kill her husband in cold blood, or leave her boyfriend in a ditch after poisoning him. Scenes like this are unnecessary, not contributing to the plot of a romance or a thriller or a horror novel. In fact, this scene contributes nothing, and I hate it when an author fills up 5 chapters with this kind of dross. In a novel it’d be inane; in a blook unforgiveable.

Oh, wait. I’ve made a mistake. There is a purpose for scenes like this, really. In short snippets these minute studies of a character’s actions can slow down the pace of a novel, providing a nice contrast to explosive action. Personally I call such scenes wrappers – stuffed between high octane chase scenes or nerve-wrecking revelations.

For instance I might write the above passage after a harrowing night running away from a psychotic boyfriend, caught on a highway and now safe and sound back at home. Or I might write:

A dull thud as the grenade landed in the exact centre of the room, breaking the monotony of the coffee machine.

Ahh. Scenes where nothing happens and detail runs rampant may drive me bonkers, but chucked in at the right places and it works wonders.

Just don’t expect me to read five pages of it online. If words could kill I’d have died long ago. Oh, of what?

Of boredom.

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Category: Learning To Write