I'm dumping another blog - this post was previously published on Feb. 21, 2009.
"Fiction is supposed to be like life, but with the dull bits removed, not spelled out in excruciating detail." - Caro Clarke, in Writing Advice 4: Beginners' Four Faults
I received an ARC of a soon-to-be-released novel yesterday to review for another site. So far, I've read the first three chapters, and I've already hit a point of frustration because of an overload of unnecessary detail.
This surfeit of detail first caught my attention when I noticed that the writer was always mentioning that the main characters went to the bathroom -- to freshen up before going somewhere else, to shower in the morning, to relieve themselves after sitting up watching movies all night. That bit of information became the catalyst for a lot of thinking over the past 24 hours about the role of detail in writing.
Obviously, we need detail to bring our stories to life. But there is a point when detail starts to get in the way of the story. I think about decorating a house. I've heard that a room with a lot of knickknacks sitting around or with too much stuff on the walls looks cluttered and actually raises people's stress levels. A better idea for home decor is to choose a few attractive items and complementary colors that will all blend together into one pleasing whole. I think the same principle can -- no, should -- be applied to our writing.
Detail should only be included in the story when it contributes in some way to the development of the plot or the characters. Let's go back to that bathroom example. If the main character goes to the bathroom to sneak a bottle of wine from the toilet tank, that tells us something about that character - put it in. If the unmarried main character goes to the bathroom to take a pregnancy test - put it in. If the main character goes to the bathroom to wash unexplained blood stains from his/her hands - put it in. But if the only reason the main character is going to the bathroom is to, well, go to the bathroom -- who cares? "But it adds reality," someone might say. As Clarke points out, fiction is not really life - it is a version of life, a version that is condensed and edited so that only the parts that are most relevant to the story are told. A clean, uncluttered story is as pleasing to our minds as a clean, uncluttered room is. A story stuffed with detail is as suffocating as a room stuffed with dusty knickknacks, various throw pillows, and odd bits of furniture.
I'll finish the book, since I promised to do the review. And I'll try to read with an open mind. But I don't want the lesson to be lost on me; I'm going to turn a very critical eye on my own writing. Any detail that's not pulling its weight is going in the recycle bin -- no mercy!