There are No Throwaway Details

Thu Feb 18 2016


Everything in your novel matters.

As a writer, you have a big job. Not only do you have to tell a story, you have to create a whole world to tell it in.

You'll borrow heavily from the real world to help get the job done, of course.

Even so, you're the one who must populate the scenes with all the furniture, weather, cups and plates and forks, clothing, people, relationships, laws, mountain ranges, warring factions, and every other thing that the story needs.

You'll add some details because the plot requires them. Others are just there for color. But they all matter because readers won't automatically know which are which. They won't know to ignore things that you think don't matter.

Readers are like elephants

You have to populate the scenes, but you can't just go making up stuff willy-nilly because readers have this annoying habit of remembering what you put in there.

I well understand the temptation, when writing, to simply wait until a scene needs certain details before bothering to think about what they are. After all, don't you already have enough to keep track of just to keep the story on course?

How nice it would be to do just-in-time creation of details to flesh out your scenes, then wipe them from your mental slate as you step into the next scene.

But you can't, because readers won't.

Somewhere in the back of their minds, they'll remember those details. And they'll notice if those details clash with something else later.

A simple example

Let's say readers encounter this short passage:

An electric guitar riff sounded from Beth Ann's purse. Mickey's ringtone. She smiled and rummaged through her purse, poking her hand on the sharp point of her nail file before fishing out the phone. "Mickey! Hey, babe, what's up?"

Now imagine that Mickey explains some bad dudes are after him. She asks if it's rival meth dealer Danny Bly's men. Mickey assures her it's not, but can he come by to borrow some cash so he can get out of town for a couple of days?

She says sure, anything babe. But when she answers the door a few minutes later, purse in hand and ready to give Mickey the money, a couple of Bly's goons grab her. They drive her away to their base, confiscate her phone, and the reader gets this:

The goons threw her into a room and slammed the door. Beth Ann staggered to stay upright, while behind her the lock clicked with the finality of a gunshot. The room was empty except for a bare, stained mattress atop a box-spring.

Beth Ann went over the room, clutching her purse to her chest. They're going to kill me, she thought. The room's one small window loomed high up the wall. It didn't seem to open, and was so filthy she could barely see through it. The closet held nothing but an old blanket wadded up in a corner, which reeked so badly she elected not to touch it.

The door opened inward but had no knob on her side. Just a flat, patched circle where a knob might have been. She sat on the corner of the mattress, wondering how many other people had been held in this room and what had happened to them.

Now if you're a reader, what do you want to see? You want to see Beth Ann try to escape from that room. If you're a reader, you're going to think about ways she might escape.

Can she break the window? Maybe, but that would be loud and it's high up on the wall, so the bad guys would probably hear and get to her before she could climb through. But maybe she could muffle the noise with that nasty old blanket and use it to protect herself from the sharp glass.

Or what about that door? It opens inward, so the hinges are on her side. If she waits until everybody's asleep, maybe she can use the edge of her nail file to unscrew the hinges and sneak out that way.

Details create possibilities

Now maybe both the nail file and the blanket were meaningless details solely meant to provide color to those moments.

Too bad, because regardless of your intentions those details create options for Beth Ann.

The details let readers think through Beth Ann's options. Problems come when those options badly mismatch what actually happens in the story.

Let's imagine that the writer needs her to be stuck in that room because a) he already has a plan for how she's going to escape later, and b) meth dealer Bly is about to show up with Beth Ann's phone, pressuring her into calling Mickey to lure him into some kind of trap.

The writer's plan doesn't work if Beth Ann escapes ahead of schedule.

But readers don't know that. All we know is that she has access to a blanket and a nail file, both of which give her options.

So if we see Beth Ann look around the room and conclude that she has no way out, we're not going to buy it. The detail of blanket clashes with not trying harder to get out of that window. The detail of the nail file clashes with the detail of the hinges.

Ok, I lied

Earlier, when I said you can't do just-in-time creation of details? You can.

What you can't do is let yourself pick just any old thing for those details. You have to keep the totality of your story in mind.

You're the one who knows what the story is, where it has already been, and where it's going. Your job is to always pick details that fit with the whole picture.

You can do this either forward or backward.

Looking forward, when you're picking your details ask yourself if they're going to cause problems in later scenes. You're the one who knows Beth Ann is going to get kidnapped, so don't give her a nail file if she might use that as a makeshift screwdriver.

Looking backward, ask yourself if anything you've already put in the story matters to whatever scene you're writing now. So when you're just-in-time creating that room Beth Ann's getting locked in, don't forget that you gave her a nail file and therefore the hinges better be on the other side of the door. Easy.

You can do just-in-time detail creation. What you can't do is forget about the details you've picked. Readers are like elephants, so you need to be an even better elephant.

Don't sacrifice your readers' faith

Readers' "willing suspension of disbelief" won't save you. The fact that an author wrote the novel is always in the back of their minds. They won't forget that you had full and complete control over what you put into the novel.

Your privileged position of choosing every single detail gives us the right to assume that everything in the story is there for a reason. Which means everything ought to mesh together well. Details shouldn't clash.

When details clash, we can only blame you. There's no one else. We feel our faith eroding in your ability to manage the complexity of a novel.

With every clashing detail, our willing suspension of disbelief decays toward grudging suspension of disbelief, and eventually to outright disbelief.