Says The Editor: It’s all in the Details

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Graphic of a crossed sword and a pencilSo. What’s with the focus on details? And why is there so much to say about them?

Well, the fact that there’s a lot to say means that they’re important. Details can make or break your story — the pacing, the worldbuilding, even where the reader puts their energy. You want to make sure you get your details right.

Get them right? Susan, what are you talking about? How can details be wrong?

Let’s start with the issue of focusing your reader on the right stuff. I see this a lot: authors who are trying to do the right thing by setting their scene. So we get lots of details about the scene: the furniture, the surroundings, the clothing the characters are wearing… and that’s all good. It’s important. You want the reader to not just have a feel for the fictional world they are immersed in, but you want them to be able to picture it in their minds. Their own private movie.

The problem enters when you spend a lot of time describing things that don’t matter, things that we only see once in a book and things that aren’t important at all. For example, the amateur sleuth goes to the house of someone who may be able to provide details about the case. The reader gets to see the contact: Ms. Myrna was old, stooped over, wearing a light blue cardigan with a button missing and black orthodpedic shoes. Her skirt was navy and didn’t match either the cardigan or the shoes, and when she smiled, she revealed three missing teeth and deep lines around her eyes, as if she smiled often and enjoyed doing so.

(Can someone help Ms. Myrna? She could use a caretaker.)

But then, here’s where we go off the rails. She invited Genie in, graciously, shuffling three steps out of the way and letting Genie have a glimpse of her home. There was no entry, so they were immediately in the living room, with its worn brown carpet, which was threadbare in spots in front of the old peach-colored three-person sofa. A glass and brass coffee table sat in front of the worn spots, a pair of bright yellow slippers underneath and three magazines — Genie looked at the titles, surprised to see one was the bass pro fisher’s association monthly magazine, one was the Smithsonian magazine, and one was a catalog of geeky gifts. The catalog had a water mark on it, or maybe it was a coffee stain; Genie couldn’t be sure.

The walls were a basic white, the ceilings smooth, the windows framed by curtains in pastel colors that compromised between the peach sofa and the brown carpet. A few paintings hung on the walls along with four photographs. The paintings were all landscapes, sunsets or maybe sunrises, and all done by an amateur hand, and the photographs were of people, but Genie couldn’t figure out a polite way to get close enough to look to see if any of them featured the woman she was looking for. They looked to be full of people who might have been related to Ms. Myrna, although even that was hard to tell because from what she could see, no one had a completely white head of hair. Nor were they wearing fashionable clothes. Or clothes that had been fashionable in the past twenty or even thirty years. Maybe, Genie thought, she ought to Google what fashions had looked like fifty years ago, well before her time. Those pictures were possibly, probably, that old, and that made Genie wonder what had happened to the people in them. Were they still alive? Did they talk to Ms. Myrna? Take care of her? Write her letters? Send her email? Help her figure out the Internet? Did they live nearby or had they dispersed? Why? Why not include this old lady, who so far seemed lovely, in their lives? Why were there no recent pictures on the walls?

Expecting an invitation to sit on the couch–which, as she got closer, she realized was full of stains and even a hole–she resolved not to sit, and to keep it short.

She turned to Ms. Myrna. “I wanted to ask you if you know Grace Gold.”

“Never heard of her. I don’t know anyone named Grace. Now, why don’t you produce your medical bag from wherever you’ve hid it and take my pressure? I ain’t got all day.”

Genie paused. “I’m… I’m not here for that. I’m here to ask if you know Grace Gold.”

“I just told you I don’t know no Graces. Now if you ain’t here to take my pressure, and you ain’t here for any reason other than to ask me about this mystery Grace I ain’t never met, maybe you should go back out through the door and come back when you are ready to take my pressure for real.”

Genie apologized to the old lady but stopped herself from asking if Ms. Myrna was okay. She wasn’t Genie’s responsibility. Then again, maybe that was what her family said, too, as they abandoned her to her old decor and her old pictures and her old lady-ness.

Did you catch it? All that detail about the photographs.

Now, maybe this doesn’t seem so outlandish to you, but what if I tell you that Genie has twenty-four hours to track down Grace Gold? That before this scene, our hearts were in our throats and we were joining Genie in hoping beyond hope that Ms. Myrna would have the answers.

And all that came crashing to a halt as we learned about people in photographs. People who don’t matter, who won’t return to the story at all, even as a fleeting thought in Genie’s day.

Sometimes, it’s good to slow the pace. To get the reader to calm. But it’s usually better to do it in ways that the story can build on.

Often, I’ll find myself commenting to an author, “This is a lot of detail about a teapot. Can you show me something else instead? Something that’ll be a key to the story?” And, as you revise, that’s what you want to think about. Does this advance the story? How does this detail function? What’s its purpose? How does it affect the pace? The reader’s mindset? The character’s arc? The plot? The mood?

A lot to think about.

I’ll be back with more next week.

Remember, if you’d like to have some of my fun comments on your own manuscript, reach out! I’d love to chat about your editing needs.

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