We’ve all heard the saying, “the devil is in the details” or some variation of it. I’d like to think that this doesn’t apply to novels because a novel isn’t a house. It’s not an eloquently designed red carpet dress where yes, the devil is in the details. A novel is fluid and needs to flow smoothly. However, what I’ve come to notice is that when it comes to novel writing, sadly, the devil is in the details. These details can and will wreck havoc on your story.
There are certain types of details that lend to a well-written book. Then there are those that force the reader to skip pages to “get to the good part.” Very good authors can make a scene so vivid that it pulls the reader in and makes her feel like she’s standing right next to the character as if she’s a part of the story. When I say that details can work here, I’m not talking about description. Description is a topic for another day.
Say you have a character in a romance novel that is rushing to her blind date after leaving work late. Here is a scene where details matter but which details? As an author, do you really think that your reader wants to read a step-by-step process of the character getting into her car and pulling out of the parking lot then the process of driving to the restaurant?
Here’s an example:
She opened the driver’s side door and sat behind the wheel. She put the key in the ignition to start the car. After putting the car in reverse, she lightly lifted her foot off of the brake. The car began to move backwards. She pulled into traffic. After ten minutes, she made a left on Fake Street then a right on Faker Street where the restaurant was.
That example is a bit over the top but believe me, I’ve read worse.
Readers don’t care about those details. They want to be in the moment with the character. They want to feel her anxiety over her first blind date ever, her frustrations with her boss for making her work late. They want to hear the rush of the wind in her hair as she runs from her car into the restaurant. These are the details you should be writing, not the mechanics of driving a car.
Details can be a beautiful thing because they invoke reader emotion and move the novel along at an easy pace, if that’s the kind of novel you’re writing. Think about your favorite scenes from your favorite books. What was it about that scene that made you love it? Was it the way she got flustered upon talking to her crush for the first time?
I’m sure if the writer had written, “My heart raced. I panicked a little” that you wouldn’t love that scene so much.
But when it’s written like this…
As if my heart wasn’t already beating fast enough, I slowly turn around and see Holder staring down at me, smiling, his dimples breaking out in the corners of his mouth. His hair is wet from sweat and it’s obvious he’s been running, too. I blink twice, half believing this is a mirage brought on by my exhaustion. My instinct is telling me to run and scream, but my body wants to wrap itself around his glistening, sweaty arms.
©Hoover, Colleen (2012-12-18). Hopeless (p. 53). Colleen Hoover. Kindle Edition.
What about that scene where the murderer is stalking the victim? Would you be as invested in the novel if the author had written, “The killer followed him as he ran through the museum” or does the way Dan Brown does it invoke more interest?
Renowned curator Jacques Saunière staggered through the vaulted archway of the museum’s Grand Gallery. He lunged for the nearest painting he could see, a Caravaggio. Grabbing the gilded frame, the seventy-six-year-old man heaved the masterpiece toward himself until it tore from the wall and Saunière collapsed backward in a heap beneath the canvas. As he had anticipated, a thundering iron gate fell nearby, barricading the entrance to the suite. The parquet floor shook. Far off, an alarm began to ring. The curator lay a moment, gasping for breath, taking stock. I am still alive. He crawled out from under the canvas and scanned the cavernous space for someplace to hide.
©Brown, Dan. The Da Vinci Code. Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
These are just two really great examples but the number is endless. I don’t have to point out bad examples, aside from the one that I already made one up, because you understand what I’m saying, right?
Readers don’t care that she went to the park, walked across the grass, sat down on a swing, and waited for bae to arrive. No! They want to know what she’s seeing, feeling, and hearing so they can feel like they’re in that moment with her.
Despite what you may have heard, novel writing is about showing, not telling. Authors need to follow 3 simple guidelines when determining when and when not to use details.
1. Don’t Fill Your Word Count with Meaningless Details
Quality over quantity
That’s the key in getting the details right. I tell every author that I work with that word count doesn’t matter. Don’t even worry about it. As a matter of fact, when I write, I disable the SHOW WORD COUNT feature in Word because it doesn’t matter. Don’t sit at your computer thinking that you need to write a 40,000-word book but you only have a 35,000-word story so you have to fill your novel with extra stuff. That’s a rookie mistake.
2. Find the Balance
You can be descriptive but remember that the best part of reading is being able to use your imagination. You don’t have to describe every single feature of a character or her clothes. Allow the reader’s mind to imagine and to form the character as they see her. In my own writing, I make it a point to be as vague as possible in character’s appearances even though I have a very distinct picture in my mind. Don’t steal the fun out of reading just because you want the reader to see your character exactly the way you do.
3. Be Specific. Be Original. Think Outside of the Box
Write the best details you can think of.
Did she blush or did blood rush to her face causing her cheeks to flush the same color as a cherry Starburst?
Sometimes a detailed reaction to an incident is better than describing the incident itself.
Say you’re writing a BBW romance and your main character is working out. What would be more interesting to read, a detailed description of her on the treadmill or her suitor watching her ass jiggle in her yoga pants as she walks on the treadmill?
If your editor is able to delete entire sentences or paragraphs from your scene and it still remains the same, you are writing the wrong details. Don’t be offended. Just take your editor’s advice and “Cut this. Elaborate here.”