If you’ve ever written fiction, you’ve probably gotten to the point in a scene where you wonder how much detail you should put in about the setting, or how much you should say about how a person looks, or how much back story you should add.
Essentially you’re looking for a balance that will work well for your scene. I like to call it the sweet spot. That might be due in part to my love of and propensity for eating Skittles or Jolly Ranchers while I write.
Of course, there is also the issue of the sweet spot in life. You know, that point where you’ve got life tamed and your schedule performing like a Japanese electric train? But that’s really a different discussion, so scratch that. Or at least stow it for a bit.
The sweet spot in a scene. How do you get there? How do you provide enough detail without negatively affecting pace? I don’t know.
But I have an idea. I think you really need to take the time to think deliberately about each scene in your tale and ask some questions about it. This process really ought to happen during revisions.
The first question I like to ask is, “What is the purpose of this scene?” That is an Amway question.
Wait for it…
It’s a multi-level question. #Rimshot# I’m here all week; don’t forget to tip your server.
So one purpose of any scene is what your character is supposed to be going through: his, her or its action. The character should have a goal to achieve for that scene, so that is a character (or story)-level purpose.
There is also, or should also be, an audience-level purpose. This is where you consider what you are trying to evoke in your audience. Is it an action scene that needs to evoke breathless excitement? Or are you trying to evoke suspense, or fear, or a tender emotional reaction.
You want to cause an emotional reaction. Figure out what reaction, and you have identified your audience-level purpose.
Now with your purposes in mind, I think we ought to ask, “What in this scene does not help fulfill theses porpoises?” (Semi-deliberate quasi-typo there. Know this: it’s in everybody’s interests to make sure porpoises are fulfilled.)
Here’s where we kill our darlings and become a word surgeon instead of a word smith. We want to put ourselves in our character’s (s’) place and make sure nothing in the scene is an obstacle that doesn’t belong. We want to consider our audience and experience the scene how they would. We trim the fat!
By the way, for an example of a superior example of a completely fat-free book, check out Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak. Unusual and marvelous.
I don’t think we’re done with purpose yet. I think we also need to ask and think critically about these questions: Does this scene accomplish its purposes? What can I add or change to make sure it does? We need to be careful with what we add or change. A careful writer do what Pat Rothfuss did in Name of the Wind: not fear the time or effort it takes to build exactly pitch-perfect scenes.
So we’ve talked about clarifying and illuminating purpose in our hunt for that sweet spot. I think we also need to consider the idea of ‘image’ or ‘picture.’ Good writing and well-built scenes create instant pictures in the reader’s mind. These are also complete pictures. These pictures are multi-sensory, but are not overly drawn.
Some scenes need more detail, because they take place in a setting or world that is going to have a story-level effect on what happens. Heck, all setting should do that, really. Take Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series. Yes, it’s incredible. Story sprang from setting so beautifully in that trilogy. Detail was needed in those descriptions because action absolutely depended on where characters were.
But I think we should always think ‘less is more’ when it comes to setting. I tend to select two or three senses and make sure I hit those senses in my descriptions. For example, read Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia. You can just read the first chapter and you will see a simply and wonderfully painted scene of Jesse running through a cow field.
That, for me, is one reason why Bridge to Terabithia is #1 all time for me. It’s such a well-crafted book that it is full of sweet spots that meld so smoothly that it’s like coming home when I read that book.
Then there is the issue of character description. I don’t think there’s a hard and fast rule, but I’ve heard Carol Lynch Williams, Brandon Sanderson, Dave Wolverton, Janette Rallison and my good friend John Bennion all say the same thing: no info dumps and entice the audience.
So I feel we should take it easy. Important physical features and traits, then let our readers complete the picture with their imagination.
Because after all, we want to fire the imagination of our audience. That is the sweet spot: tell the story, paint the picture and let the readers get passionate about the story and world as their imaginations are fired up.
What are your thoughts on how to hit that sweet spot? What did I miss?