Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.
– Alfred Hitchcock
Before you start thinking I’m selling a new miraculous cleaning product that will make your floors shine like mirrors, let me explain: I’m talking about the ‘housekeeping’ that your characters sometimes do in your story.
We have to show our characters moving through a scene, and as authors we have to take them from one place to the next. How much should we say about the details? When the story starts getting bogged down in the nuts and bolts of everyday actions and speech, it feels to me as though the author has got involved in the housekeeping. The pace of a scene, and our readers’ level of interest in it, can drop off a cliff if we’re given every minor detail of a character’s actions.
Maddie thanked the hotel receptionist and took her key. Picking up her bag, she turned and walked across to the lift and pressed the button. She didn’t have to wait long; the doors soon opened to let out a young couple, and she placed her bag on the lift floor before selecting the button for the third level.
Wake up! Yes, I almost fell asleep writing that. Yet as writers we sometimes feel that we have to take our characters through a scene in this way, for fear that we’re skipping ahead, or worrying that our readers will get lost if they can’t see every move.
Let’s try again:
Maddie wished the receptionist wasn’t so infernally cheerful. How did receptionists manage to keep such a dazzling smile on their ruby-painted lips all day long? She swept the key from the desk and crossed to the lift, stabbing at the button and pushing past the young couple that emerged a few moments later. Once up in his featureless room she threw her bag on the white-covered bed …
Some of the small details have been left out in this re-writing, but we follow Maddie through the scene just as well. We can let the readers assume that she takes her bag with her from the reception desk, for example – we’re reminded that she has a bag later.
But here’s what’s more important: the details that are included are all there for a reason. Maddie's in such a bad mood that she’s annoyed by the receptionist’s being nice to her. And she’s not someone who can put her troubles aside for a moment, remembering that whatever’s bothering her is not the receptionist's fault. We can also see that she’s in a fairly bland, mass-produced hotel.
Let’s consider another example: your protagonist tells a colleague that they’re going to buy a sandwich, and would they like anything? If the colleague simply says no, or just asks for cheese, then we’ve learned nothing very much. But if they ask for tofu with beansprouts, what have we learned? How about if they ask for Parma ham with rocket and buffalo mozzarella on sourdough? Or if they say, ‘No, I couldn’t possibly trouble you; it’s so kind of you, thank you so much for asking, but I wouldn’t dream of imposing,’ what does that tell us?
So, if you’re taking your character through a scene or having them interact with someone, have in the back of your mind that you need a reason for including the details. With that in mind, you’ll find that you add colour to the scene as well as maintain the pace.
And actually, forget the real housekeeping too. Perhaps not altogether – you may find you need some clean underwear at some point – but if you face a choice between keeping an immaculate house and writing your novel, then write the novel. When you look back on your life I guarantee you won’t regret a failure to have kept clean skirting boards.
Happy writing, everyone!
This piece by Kayla Kauffman on Jane Friedman’s blog talks about the ‘daily routine trap’, and gives examples of how many practical details can be left out without harming the reader’s understanding of the character’s world.
Originally posted 20 October 2020