Monday, October 21, 2013

How Much Detail?

I’ve been reading a book over the course of several months. That’s not like me. I can chew up a piece of riveting fiction in a matter of hours. If the book reaches most favored status, it goes in my collection to be read another day. This book isn’t going to make it. It’s not a terrible book, not at all, and I met and had a lovely chat with the authors, who were extremely gracious and bought a book of mine as well at the conference we attended.

This particular book is helpful to me in my current research, as it’s written by industry professionals in the arena of my fictional world. I felt obligated to read it, sure, but the book sounded interesting in a genre I enjoy, so I wanted to read it. Just not for so long.

There are a number of reasons I kept putting the book down, and after a while I realized the main one was due to Too Much Detail in the narrative. The kind of detail that occasionally includes bathroom stops; opening the cupboard to reach for a coffee cup; deciding how to get the suspect into the correct jurisdiction; and getting in the car, closing the door, putting on a safety belt, pressing the button to let the automatic garage door close, driving to the curb, signally, looking both ways, and then pulling out onto the street.

Did I mention the book is FBI suspense? Suspense needs intense action, not be a procedural handbook. Although, honestly, that’s been somewhat helpful, per above. It’s just that I found the stuff I needed for my book on the FBI website, so I didn’t particularly want to spend a page “learning” about technicalities in my recreational read. I just wanted action, especially since people talking about it was much less interesting than watching it unfold. This is a prime example of Resist the Urge to Explain.

Here’s an example from this book, the second conversation about putting these events in motion, about half way through the book:

Griff and Nick Tascoda tweaked their plan to use Skeeter to infiltrate the drug smugglers. Griff cradled the phone to his ear, leaned back in his chair. He was getting caught up in the hunt. Then a problem surfaced. The problem of jurisdiction. “The crime must be prosecuted where it occurs. In the Eastern District of Virginia, we’ve got tough judges. Their sentences live up to the crime.”
Before Nick could object, Griff relented. “But I know there’s no way you can steer the case up there. Even though I’ll supervise Skeeter, you should get credit for a big drug bust. After all, you work for the Drug Enforcement Administration.”
Nick let out a giant laugh. “I always liked your judgment, Topping. Listen to what I’ve been working on. You get Skeeter a new cell phone issued in the Florida panhandle where he lives. The FBI pays for it. The number is registered to Skeeter at his address. But the invoice gets mailed to you at your office.”
Griff grasped the plan immediately. “Skeepter accepts a free phone. I’m on the books as the owner, and create the PIN. That way, I check the account, see who he’s calling.”

(They go on for another half a page creating the set-up, the place—which includes getting out a map to tell the audience, again, where they are—and the scene ends with a reiteration of the phone deal. Eighteen pages later, the reader is returned to the set-up, which is briefly repeated in a couple of sentences to remind the reader what’s going on.)

Here’s an example from Steven James’s The King, also an FBI thriller and long, but faster-paced, at least in my opinion.

From our history of working together, I knew Ralph wanted to take Basque down almost as much as I did, but also understood that in his current position at the Bureau he had to follow protocol.
            So do you.
            Yeah, well, that’s never been my specialty.
            “I get it,” I told him.
            He eyed me squarely. “I’m not gonna say I know what you’re going through right now, okay? But you’re playing right into his hands.”
            “How’s that?”
            “Why do you think he went after Lien-hua? She’s never worked his case. He went after her to hurt you, to make you stupid with rage.”
            “Yes,” I acknowledged. But I wasn’t really focused on what he was saying. I was busy studying the geography of the land surrounding the treatment plan and comparing it with what I knew of the region’s neighboring roads and traffic patterns, trying to form a map of the area in my mind.
            “Are you hearing me, Pat?”

            (Goes on a couple of paragraphs about how Pat might go out of control, then he admits he might, then he simply goes after Basque.)

The difference, besides first person vs. third, is that their conversation in the first example explained things, while the conversation in the second example let me experience things. The first example talked about the set-up, which happened over a couple of chapters eighty pages later, while in the second example, the agents put their plan together shortly before this, then acted on it. Have you ever read a dialog between people who know each other well, but still felt the need to remind the other of their job title?

Different genres call for different styles of writing as well as level of details. Historical works need some description of setting and enough explanation of events or daily living skills so modern readers can relate. Romance calls for description to set the mood, as well as lots of physical characteristics so readers can see and be the people.

The level of detail can be shown through third person narratives, internal monologues, dialog, or exterior journal in diaries, articles, and so forth.

In my current work, a character has an unusual medical condition that makes her feel like a freak although she can mask it well. Since my story takes place when she’s in her late twenties, she’s lived with it. She wouldn’t constantly think, oh, my (condition) of (specific detail) makes me feel like a freak. Would you? She’d say or think about feeling like a freak, but not necessarily why, exactly, every time it comes up. But how do I let my readers in? I chose a bit of internal monologue as the character thought about how the condition affected her in gym class and on a date in college, and that allowed the reader to go through the experience. When it came time to reveal it to the male love interest, I had them dialog about it but not get technical enough to bore the reader. Besides, I think readers are smart enough to go look it up if they want to know more.

If a person who’s in the medical field, or in law enforcement, likes to read fiction (or non) within that realm, he or she will expect different levels of description. In a world that changes dramatically every few months, minutiae will soon date your book or be found not to be the case after all. If you want your book to have a shelf life, be general enough to weather a few evolutions of culture and research.

The proof to a challenge of detail is always on the questioner. It’s a fine line: How much to reveal to prevent skepticism and turn-off, or worse—ho-hum; versus enough to engage the reader. Genre and audience help you determine how, what, and how much detail in your work.

Readers, chime in! How much detail or fact or description do you like in your pleasure reading?
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