In my last post, Show and Tell, I wrote about the differences between 'showing' and 'telling' a story, and the best ways to use details to build a narrative. Although it's important to keep detail to a minimum (to avoid clogging your text with unnecessary words) we should always look for opportunities to make quick wins – places where we can tweak existing text so it's working as hard as it can to deliver information about character and plot.
In Show and Tell, I used the example of our protagonist, Harry, making some purchases:
The above is serviceable, but it's relatively simple to adjust this text so that it tells us a little more about Harry. For example:
Adding details such as the flavour of the gum and the name of the magazine don’t cost us much in terms of extra text, and they help give the reader a sharper mental image of the picture we’re trying to paint for them. These choices also help to establish Harry’s character. If Harry had bought a pack of Juicy Fruit and a copy of Kerrang! we'd have a very different idea of what his tastes are.
One of the easiest ways to sharpen the reader's metal image of a scene is to use 'proper' nouns i.e. specific names rather than general ones. Rather than say a dog is sitting outside the store, we can sharpen the focus by saying it's a Beagle or a Basset Hound. Both these breeds will be familiar to most readers. Alternatively, if later in the story, Harry is chased by a dog, it will help to sharpen focus and establish character if we name the dog as a Rottweiler (if Harry is a tough guy), or as a Chihuahua (if he's not).
However, adding this level of detail might not always be appropriate. For example, if a bird makes a mess on Harry's car, it's probably not worth pointing out that it was a Great Crested Flycatcher unless knowing the species is important to the plot, or Harry is a keen ornithologist and this is the kind of thing he'd notice. In the same way, if Harry takes a picture of the dirty bird, do we need to know that he uses a Nikon D3000 Digital SLR with a Top-Max 420-800mm high def telephoto zoom, or is it enough to say he has a fancy Japanese camera with a lens as long as his arm?
When you're reviewing text, ask yourself if slipping in significant details such as these will help or hinder the story.
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The short story Leofric: Sacrifice is now available on Amazon (£0.99/$0.99). Set in Dark Age Denmark, the story follows Leofric as he finds a woman murdered in the woods near his uncle's hall, then sets a trap to unmask her killer...