I just finished a much-praised new mystery, out in hard cover from a prestigious publisher. I skimmed the second half after becoming bored and then annoyed at the endless details the author plunked down in the middle of what were supposed to be scenes of action and tension.
At first, I thought the author meant me to pay strict attention to the layout of the room and where the various papers lay. I thought the author would circle around to them and that something in the set up would prove significant. But after a whole lot of these minutely described spaces, I began to wonder: They couldn’t all be significant. No one could ask a reader to remember that many little details, and I was right. In the end, almost none of it was relevant. To me, it felt like padding.
Details are important. The proper use of them grounds your story in some degree of reality, gives your reader a way to see your characters and plot in context, and can be fun if you’re describing someplace exotic or you’re doing your describing with a satirist’s touch. But once you’ve established the place, time, season of the year, and a few telling bits to let us know something about your protagonist’s life and lifestyle, you need to move on.
The trick is figuring out which details are relevant to the story, which will move the story forward or aid the reader in keeping up with it.
The cracks in the sidewalk were large enough that weeds had grown through them and had begun to flower, a defiant garden in this desolate place.
To me, that says we’re looking at a depressed or abandoned neighborhood, somewhere our heroine might rather not be. Surely, she’s going to encounter trouble or an unexpected puzzle, or a person who’s struggling in a hostile situation or a person who is winning against all odds, or… something. But what if the protagonist is simply driving through, absently notes that, and winds up at a mall ten minutes away and never comes back? Then, why did we need that detail? Was it just a sentence the author wrote and thought was nice?
You know what they say: Kill your darlings. I feel that way about details. If they’re not relevant to this story right now, pull them out and, if you can’t bear to kill them, park them in a different document with all those other cool lines you want to use someday.