Thursday, July 6, 2017

Showing vs Overshowing

Zestful Blog Post #219

A comment on my post ‘Extrapolation for Writers’ asked about sharing enough versus oversharing—a question of detail. What’s the perfect amount of detail to give your reader? You want enough so that he feels fully anchored in the scene, yet not too much that he gets bored or restless. (Thanks for prompting this post, Liz B.)

Of course, readers’ tastes and preferences vary, so Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, with its surpassing level of detail, is one reader’s heaven, another’s hell. Gregory McDonald’s Fletch books, with their paucity of description (yet fast action and plentiful dialogue), might represent the reverse. So, we are left with subjectivity.

I’ve thought and thought about this issue, and have come to realize that to get it right, an author needs experience writing and reading, especially close reading. And while there’s no master formula, I’ve come up with a couple of guidelines. Stick with me.

First, experience. A professional author must read not only for pleasure, but for self-education. That might seem obvious, but I’m always a little surprised when I’m discussing books with an aspiring author who says, “Oh, I didn’t like that book. Couldn’t get into it. Why? I don’t know why.” Or, “I just love all her novels!! Always have. Why? I guess—well, I can’t really say.”

Bear down when you read. Intuition is good, but don’t stop there. Drill into what makes a passage work or not work. Very often, you respond to the details of a scene, whether in description or dialogue. (Examples to follow.) There’s no right or wrong here—just what seems right or wrong to you. In this way, close reading helps you get to know your own style. I keep recommending the practice of copying passages of good books, longhand or on the keyboard. I call it ‘Writing with the Masters,’ though I’m not the first to ever think of it. And keep writing, and keep showing your work to readers you respect. Listen to what they say.

Going, now, beyond those general admonitions, which really apply to any aspect of writing, and into the showing of details. I’m a believer in learning from examples, so here are some:

Which of the following three do you prefer?:

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She said OK.

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She blew a strand of her dyed-red hair out of her eyes and poured some brandy into my coffee cup. “All right, then.”

“Consider it a loan, then,” I said. “Let’s be real.”
She got up and went to the cabinet above the sink on the left-hand side. She opened the cupboard door with her right hand, took out a bottle of brandy with her left, and returned to the table. She took the cap off the bottle and tipped it so that some brandy ran into my coffee cup. After that, she set the bottle down on the table and sat down. The chairs had blue vinyl coverings. Blowing a strand of her dyed-red hair out of her eyes, she said, “All right, then.”

We agree. Number two, right?

The key I’ve used for so long that it’s become almost unconscious, is to give at least one, and rarely more than two details, per chunk of story. The first example above gives zero details. The second gives two: the dyed-red hair and the pouring of the brandy, which bring that portion of the scene to life. The third gives like a thousand, and the preponderance makes the passage heavy and boring. (The second passage is from a long short story I’m finishing up, involving Lillian Byrd and some deep trouble…)

Furthermore, I’ve found that pace is an important regulator for making decisions about detail. If you need to pick up the pace, just show us the punch to the jaw and get on with it. But if things are moving along nicely, you might have the punchee see the fist coming as if in slow motion, before knuckles contact lower mandible. If the punch is going to be an important one, and the action has already been fast, you might wish to decelerate further by having the punchee also realize his back is already against the wall, and it’s going to be impossible to roll with this one—just gonna have to brace for it and keep looking for a way out. And then the impact, and you might want to describe the feeling of that.

So, in sum:

Give at least one or two details per chunk of story (and of course you are the one to decide what makes a chunk);
When in doubt, limit yourself to one or two details per chunk; and
Permit pace to help with decisions of detail.

And that’s enough for today. Is there anything you’d like to share about this topic? We’re all keen to learn!

Lastly, a note from one of us. Faithful reader and commenter BJ Phillips has a new novel out called
SNOWBIRD SEASON. We think it could appeal to the romantic side of women-lovin' women!

If you’d like me to mention your new book, just shoot me an email with a link. And if I’ve overlooked posting your link, please nudge me again. It was inadvertent.

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  1. Great advice! I often feel like I'm including too many or two few details. One or two per chunk...perfect!

    1. Glad this resonated with you, Naomi! Thanks for stopping in.

  2. Thanks for the link to Snowbird Season, I enjoyed reading it and I also read Book 1 Hurricane Season. B J Phillips is now on my list of “to read” authors. Authors need all the exposure they can get to new readers, but as a reader its great to be introduced to new authors.

    1. Elaine, that's wonderful!! BJ, you've got a fan here.

    2. Elaine, I'm so glad you enjoyed my books. And Elizabeth, thank you for the shout-outs on both of them.

  3. This post is especially helpful during my revision rounds. Thank you, Elizabeth.


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