Friday, October 15, 2010

The Devil in the Details: What to Leave Out and What to Keep In

I have a tendency to get incredibly concerned with life’s little details – you know, the ones that don’t matter in the slightest, like squeezing toothpaste from the end of the tube instead of from the middle. In doing so, I often miss seeing what my family likes to call “the forest through the trees,” or the big picture. Is squeezing from the middle of the toothpaste tube really more important than brushing one’s teeth? No, not really.

Being so caught up in detail is occasionally a problem for me, but it has been a big help to me here at Elaine’s where small details could make or break a partial for us interns. Over the past few weeks I have noticed that lots of writers add plenty of details and minutiae to the descriptions stories. Don’t get me wrong- this is a good thing- but it’s also something one should be wary of.

For example, many of the partials I read here contain passages similar to this one:

As Alice stepped into the foyer, he heard the click of her Prada stilettos echoing across the marble floor. Bertram tried not to pay her any attention, but her crisp white oxford shirt (with the top three buttons undone) and gray silk skirt caught his glasses-framed eye, and he turned his head towards her. She was a vision, with her seemingly endless legs moving closer and closer towards him.

For the record, the above passage is not something I read in a partial. But what’s wrong with it? If I were to read something like this (and trust me, I have), I would get annoyed at the level of unnecessary detail used to describe Alice. For example, it doesn’t make a difference to me whether the white oxford shirt Alice is wearing was ironed earlier today or a month ago. It’s not particularly important to the romantic A-couple plot, and definitely not something that needs to be in the partial. Her clicking stiletto heels are important because they signal her arrival to Bertram, but unless the story is about Bertram’s magical ability to pick out shoe brands by the sounds of their heels on marble floors, we don’t need to know that they are Prada.

As a general rule I am more interested in seeing how the characters react to seemingly insignificant details than we are in knowing the details themselves. Let’s say, for example, that a partial involving a banker spent at least half a page describing the rising mortgage rates at his bank (also not something I have actually read about). The mortgage rates themselves are not interesting to read about – what is interesting is whether the banker starts jumping up and down or smoking at the ears after seeing them. Likewise, the three buttons undone on Alice’s shirt are more interesting if they clearly do (or do not) affect Bertram in some way.

It’s a fine line to walk. If there isn’t enough detail it will bother us, but it will also bother us if there’s too much detail. But this problem is not unsolvable – there are ways to practice adding just enough detail. One way I learned involved verbally describing to a partner how to draw an object. You know what the object of choice is, but your partner does not. Your task is to describe to them exactly how to draw the object without naming the object itself. Sound’s easy, I know, but it’s actually a lot more difficult than it sounds. This exercise is something I learned in a writing class at Georgetown University, and it has been a tremendous help to me. I hope it’s a help to you too!

Until next time,



Anonymous said...

I was a little worried at first when I read about the heels clicking against the marble...reminds me of my partial!

Good post!

Sammy said...

THIS. A hundred times over, THIS.

Cynthia DiFilippo Elomaa said...

Very helpful. I'll keep this in mind.

Denise Friend said...

I've read too much detail can be, well, too much. I keep that in mind when writing scenes. Sometimes I find I express the characters feelings through actions. I wonder if I'm doing the same thing, only different.