Becky made a very good point yesterday. If we take too much detail out of our writing, our readers can feel that it is too sparse.
That begs the $64,000 question – how much hole?
Do we have to say whether a living room is modern or baroque? Can’t it simply be a living room? If we introduce someone into the action, do we really need to describe their hair colour, eye colour, clothes, shoes, the length of their nose, their favourite football team?
I’ve got a theory …
The first point is that it depends on the context. I want more detail about my main characters than the minor walk-on parts. If Indiana Jones has spent the entire movie or book searching for the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant or Godot or whatever, when he does find it I want to know what it looks like. I would feel cheated if I wasn’t.
Some objects need more description than others. I know what a chair looks like. You don’t need to describe a chair in great detail. But I have never seen a time machine. At least, not a genuine working time machine. So if you are going to put a time machine into your story, I am going to need a little help to visualise it. Is it sleek and shiny? Or cobbled together with bits and pieces?
Some genres need more description than others. Readers of romance usually want to know what their heroine is wearing, but they might be happy for the description to stop when the action gets to the bedroom door. Readers of erotica might want the description to start at the bedroom door, and tell us what the hero and heroine are not wearing.
Or the hero and hero. Or heroine and heroine. Or … you get the picture.
There’s something else – one of the secrets of good description. Readers need to know at least one fact about a person or thing, but it must be a killer fact.
This was a nugget I picked up when I was learning how to give presentations and speak in public. No matter how good you are at speaking, your audience will only remember one or two things about your presentation. Probably only one. So what is the one thing that you want them to remember?
Stress that one thing. Repeat it. Make it zing.
Because if you don’t do that, your audience could choose for themselves which one thing to remember. Maybe your suit wasn’t ironed. You are wearing a hideous tie. Your flies are undone. They are going to have haddock for supper.
It’s the same with writing. The minimum description for most important objects in fiction is one killer fact. One zingy little nugget.
Okay, okay, I can guess what you are going to ask next. What is a zingy little nugget?
It’s a piece of description that you remember. Something out of the ordinary, which gets you thinking. It is a caricaturist’s broad pen stroke.
Let me give you an example. Here’s a snatch of dialogue from Pulp Fiction. Two of our main characters are ordering steaks at a fifties Hollywood themed diner. The waiter is dressed like Buddy Holly:
BUDDY: Hi, I’m Buddy, what can I get’cha?
VINCENT: I’ll have the Douglas Sirk steak.
BUDDY: How d’ya want it, burnt to a crisp, or bloody as hell?
VINCENT: Bloody as hell. And to drink, a vanilla coke.
BUDDY: How ’bout you, Peggy Sue?
MIA: I’ll have the Durwood Kirby burger – bloody – and a five-dollar shake.
BUDDY: How d’ya want that shake, Martin and Lewis, or Amos and Andy?
Let’s try to tear our eyes away from Vincent and Mia, brilliantly played by John Travolta and Uma Thurman. Just take a look at Buddy. He has a walk-on part, a disposable waiter. To many writers he would just be A.N. Other.
Tarantino gives him one character trait, but it’s a killer. Our Buddy themed waiter has a stock of sassy questions which he probably uses with every customer. “Burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell?” and “How ’bout you, Peggy Sue?”
That might get our imaginations going. Has the waiter made these phrases up or did the management tell him to say those things? And hey presto, he is no longer a stock waiter from rent-a-character. He has a catch-phrase. He’s Buddy. “Burnt to a crisp or bloody as hell” Buddy.
And how ’bout you, Peggy Sue?
Maybe Pulp Fiction is too modern for your tastes. Let’s have a spot of the Bard. Romeo and Juliet. Here’s Mercutio describing his arch enemy Tybalt:
BENVOLIO: Why, what is Tybalt?
MERCUTIO: More than Prince of Cats. Oh, he’s the courageous captain of compliments. He fights as you sing prick-song, keeps time, distance, and proportion. He rests his minim rests—one, two, and the third in your bosom. The very butcher of a silk button, a duellist, a duellist, a gentleman of the very first house of the first and second cause. Ah, the immortal passado, the punto reverso, the hai!
That one phrase “the Prince of Cats” is all we need to know about Tybalt. It’s a zingy little nugget, one of the best ever written. Mercutio expands on what this means, but this is also part of a little nugget. Mercutio talks too much. He loves the sound of his own voice.
This might go against everything you have been taught about writing. The experts say to put lots of description in. Here I am saying that you probably only need one bit of description, but it needs to be a good one. A zingy little nugget.
There’s one more thing. To be really effective, description needs to relate back to the main character in the scene. Being zingy is one thing. Being zingy and personal is another. Mercutio’s “Prince of Cats” is said with some feeling because he and Tybalt have history between them.
Let’s take Becky’s living room question. If we set a scene in a living room, do we really need to describe the furniture? Do we have to say whether the room is baroque or modern, fussy or minimalist?
Maybe. If we do describe the living room, we could pick out one detail. The hideous china ornaments on the shelf. A family photograph. The collection of pristine books that have never been read. That detail will be even zingier if it tells us something about the owner of the room and/or the person visiting it. We might describe the twee china dogs on every surface, the delicate china tea cups, the semi-pornographic painting on the wall.
Or it might be just another living room and we spend our description on the people in it. Either way, we do need some descriptions to get the reader’s started. The rest is up to them.
So maybe the trick is not to fill our writing with nothing but holes. A hole needs a solid surface around it otherwise it isn’t a hole. It’s just a nothing.
And the thing to put around our holes are zingy little nuggets.
Incidentally, that was the fifth time in this blog that I had mentioned “zingy little nuggets, and this sentence is the sixth.
As I said, people will generally only remember one thing. You need to choose what that one thing is. A zingy little nugget.
And that’s the seventh time I’ve said it.