By Danielle Ackley-McPhail
You know, sometimes we just don’t know when to stop. No. It’s true, even I’m guilty (I know. Shocker.) We get so caught up in the language and discovery of these worlds in our head that we just pile on the detail. We get so caught up in the creativity that we have to build the universe right down to the thumbtacks on the wall, or we’re worried about not being clear, or missing something important, until we end up with a literal checklist of all the steps that took our characters from A to B…for each scene.
Okay, so perhaps I exaggerate, but not completely. There are times in fiction that call for expansive detail and other where too much clutter kills the action. It is important to know how and when to hold back. Ask yourself a few questions while you’re writing:
1) Have we been here before?
If this is the first time your character is in this setting the reader does need to know something of the surroundings, it helps shape their mental image of where they are. If you don’t give them detail they start to imagine things on their own and that can screw you up later when you are specific about a character or setting.
Now it is tempting to just give a paragraph with all the details and then go on to the character, but in most instances that gives a choppy, disjointed feel to a scene, kind of like the difference between beads on a string as opposed to a smooth braid where things are neatly woven together. I like braids. It is better to feed the reader details in relation to the character and their actions. As the character notices or experiences aspects of the space, that is when you introduce them. It keeps things fluid, connected, and gives a sense of discovery, rather than of being told something.
If the character has been in a particular setting before you want focus on what is relevant to the character, the action, or a future point in the plot at that very moment, and not a lot of extraneous detail that will distract the reader from what is important in the scene.
2) What is the point of the scene? The answer to that determines how much detail is appropriate. Sometimes you want to feed things in piecemeal, other times you HAVE to go in depth.
- Is this a destination or a transition? If the answer is destination, we need to know stuff. What does the place look like, who and what are where? If this is just a transition to someplace more important any details you give should be important.
- Is it taking too long to get where we’re going? Are you trying to build tension or move from one part of the plot to another? If so and you as the writer start to feel it is taking forever, then take a look at the details you have included. Some things are important for plot or character, but extraneous stuff should be kept to a minimum until you hit a more relaxed portion of the story or book.
- Is this relevant later? Sometimes you have to include detail, no matter what the scene. There are always points that you have to reveal the bits and pieces that come together later so that everything makes sense. Like mentioning a belt dagger if the character uses it three chapters later to save himself, or noticing a peculiar tattoo on a passerby that seems irrelevant but in the end betrays the villain.
- What actions progress the plot? When it comes to the things the characters do some steps are unavoidable, but others you can skip over. We don't need to know that Jim opened the drawer, took out a pair of socks, closed the drawer, sat on the bed, and then put on the socks. Suffice it to say, Jim took socks from his dresser and put them on. On the other hand, if Jim is fighting an olfactory sensitive monster and the only thing that can save him is the month-old dirty socks under his bed, making him work for it in excruciating detail serves a purpose.
When it comes down to it, we must all judge for each piece we write how much detail adds to the story, and how much sucks the life out of it. If you aren't sure, read the work aloud, feel the pacing of it. If a snail could move faster, trim things down. If you reach the end and you have no clear picture of where you are or how you got there, slow down a bit and explore the world you're creating because that is how the reader comes to care, when you make the world and those that populate it real for them.
Structural Assists to Pacing
I know most of this article has had to do with content, but I wanted to mention several ways you can use the structure of your writing to impact the pace of the scene. These are the conscious choices you can make to inspire subconscious responses in your readers. Wonderful tools when used properly.
- Chop it Up. A great way to increase the tension and pacing of a scene is to use short sentences, or even sentence fragments (sparingly, please.) to give a sense of urgency and action. A key place to use this is a fight scene where what is happening is most important. Such as:
Jim dove left. Claws raked his feet, but didn’t take hold. Thud. His body hit the floor. Air left his lungs. Spots formed before his eyes. Yet instinct sent him rolling out of the way. A massive paw slammed down where he’d been. He rolled again. Scrambled for the safety of beneath the bed. The creature snarled. Its nose wrinkled and twitched. Violently. Jim spied last month’s socks just out of reach and knew what to do.
You get the idea…
- Punch the Line. No…don’t pick a fight with it. The words would win. Okay, let me explain. Sometimes a point you make in a story is like a sucker punch. Unexpected or profound enough to really grab the reader, but somewhat lost among the other copy. Now this is another thing you don’t want to overuse, but you can get a lot of mileage out of taking that perfect line and letting it stand on its own. Here’s an example from my upcoming novel, Today’s Promise (Dark Quest Books, May 2012):
Looking around the room, she noticed another bed, that one holding a young woman dead pale and covered in dust. Another woman Agnieszka didn’t recognize was tenderly cleaning her up.
The sight left Agnieszka feeling empty and alone. She had had enough. Confirming her own person was free of dust, and rebraiding her hair, she felt marginally closer to civilized.
TIME TO REJOIN THE HUMAN RACE.
And she stepped out of the room. There were a number of people waiting there, half of them looking like they’d just come from battle. Again with the dust, and a bit more blood. She swept the group with her gaze. She knew two of them. Agnieszka turned to the young man who she’d first encountered at her own cottage. Back before her life went catawampus. She didn’t even know his name, but of the two faces she recognized, his was the one she mistrusted the least.
“Take me home, now.”
No, the line isn’t printed all in caps in the book. Just highlighting my example. That line could have easily been run into the paragraph preceding it, but by popping it out it has much more impact, particularly for someone who read what came before this isolated segment :)
Writing is one choice after another. What to say and how to say it, heck, even when. Consider your options to achieve the best effect, keeping the reader interested and moving forward to the next page at the proper pace for what’s going on. Use every trick you have to increase the (positive) impact of your work, but always remember to include the lulls, the relaxed moments, the times when it is natural to stop and smell…anything. And when it’s time to get tense…let the world fade into the background so all the reader’s attention is riveted where it belongs.
So, what tricks do you use to ramp up your writing?
- Current Mood: busy