Details, Details


20120128-gun on table

In an earlier post I noted the problem with having too many named characters in your story. Details help build the sense of reality in a story (verisimilitude, in a word), but if the details are not handled properly, they become what I call dead-end plot points. Let’s look at another aspect of the problem of dead-ending. Imagine you read the following:

Charlotte took the knife, a long-bladed thing with a bone handle, and placed it on the third shelf of the cupboard. She locked it with a strangely shaped, metallic red key, and placed the key in a cabinet above the refrigerator.

I (as writer) have introduced a knife, and a strange key, and I’ve told you where I’ve placed the key, so now we all know where to find the knife again. Now imagine I never mention that knife or key again in the story. How do you think you’d feel when you reached the end, and that knife never showed up again?

Here’s the thing about readers. Give them a specific piece of information—particularly a piece of information that seems to have significance—and she or he will tag that piece of information for later recollection. Keep in mind that the reader and the writer are engaged in a relationship, and that relationship has rules. One of the first rules is as follows: the writer promises to provide everything the reader needs to know, in order for the reader to enjoy the story, and the reader promises to remember everything the writer says, in order to get what the writer is trying to say in the story.

Here’s where the relationship goes sour: the writer fills the story with details that seem important at the time, but which are never mentioned again. Anton Chekhov is noted for his “Show, don’t tell” writing advice, but here comes another one, commonly referred to as Chekhov’s Gun.

“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”

-Anton Chekhov

As a writer, I may be trying to show that my character—the one who has a long knife with a bone handle, remember?—is an eccentric who collects odd objects. But there are many ways of showing that without focusing on a specific object. Lists can be useful:

Charlotte placed a bone-handled knife in a glass cabinet next to a dented copper goblet, a menorah, some thimbles, a ball of yarn, and six colored glasses of various sizes.

Or you might try more sweeping descriptions of the entire room and its contents:

Charlotte showed me into the living room. I sat in the nearest chair, one of five that didn’t match the others. The room was filled with all sorts of knick-knacks that were more suggestive of hoarding than of any specific collection. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to what she had on display.

Avoid focusing attention on a specific object if that object isn’t going to play a part in your story. You’ll save your reader a lot of frustration.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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