by Karen Payton Holt (AKA KPHVampireWriter)
When you’re writing a story and setting the scene, because you want the reader to ‘see’ what you are seeing, it is very easy to fall into one of two traps.
1/ ‘An information dump’ – where the writer’s head appears above the parapet and the detail the reader ‘needs to know’ is dumped in to their lap. If the story is halted for too long then picking up the action again is more difficult.
2/ Descriptive opening paragraphs written in passive voice, which can be dull.
‘The man entered the bar. There were tables scattered around the room. The lighting was dim. There were four men sat huddled in a corner, and one guy was wearing a hat…’
You get the picture. However, introducing a new setting is far more interesting if the voice is active.
Consider, ‘The tavern door was heavier than I expected as I shouldered my way through it, escaping the bitter cold outside. Even in the dimly lit interior, I made out the distinctive profile of his hat. He sat with three of his cronies, each one huddled over a glass of beer as though they were bears protecting a kill.’
Which one would you rather read? This brings us to the real question. How much detail/depth do we really need to tell a story. What kind of detail makes you yawn? How do you know when you are overdoing it?
We are all individuals and, where one person may consider ‘Jane Eyre’ to be akin to a slow death experience, another may lose themselves in the detail and be enchanted.
Therein lies the writer’s dilemma and, in all honesty, there cannot be a definitive answer. However, that said, you can and should listen to your gut.
My own top five writing tips — in no particular order — for self-censoring your prose would be:
1/ If you are concerned that you are ‘over describing’, then usually, you are.
2/ It is said that ‘a picture paints a thousand words’. Do not fall into the trap of using a thousand words to describe a scene.
3/ Cliches are out… but you don’t have to be dull. You can still describe a beautiful sunset in one sentence. I write horror novels and conjuring a dark atmosphere in one sentence is possible. ‘The sun bled across the granite grey sea as nightfall pressed it down into the horizon’. — Do you see blood, granite, and a dark glowering sky? I hope so.
4/ Make sure your details are relevant and drive your plot forward. For example, if a character is boxing up belongings, please don’t tell me that he is using a ‘Sharpie pen’ to write on the labels. Unless the character is writing on them in blood, then I probably don’t need to know.
5/ As a writer, research is essential. What is not essential, is to fall in love with all the ‘neat details’ you discovered, and to share every single one with your reader. The reader should get the sense you know more than you are telling because that builds their trust and confidence in the story. Remember, you are telling a story, not delivering a lecture.
I recently came across a quote by Elmore Leonard, who said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.” It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.