The Roman poet Horace wrote, “Your opening shows great promise,” but then he complained about “flashy purple patches,” associating fancy words with the practice of sewing expensive patches on cheap garments to add richness. That effort had the opposite effect, sending a clear message that the wearers were not rich. Similarly, the richness of detail is important in your stories, but you want to avoid flowery phrases that call attention to the words instead of the message.
- The Color Purple
At the beginning of his novel Paul Clifford, Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote: It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. In 1830, this might have been good writing, but today it’s used as a classic example of bad writing. Never begin a story with landscape and weather. Why? Readers care about characters, not conditions.
- What Details Are Important?
Suppose our hero rushes into his apartment to get dressed for a date. Since he doesn’t care about the pictures on the wall, the beer cans on the coffee table, or the dirty dishes in the sink, those details shouldn’t be mentioned. They detract from the hero’s important goal. Instead, point out the hindrances to meeting his date on time: He can’t find a clean shirt. His shoes aren’t polished. The landlord consumes precious minutes, demanding payment of the rent. Not only do these details heighten reader concern for love that might be lost, they say a lot about the hero’s personality.
- Captivate Readers with Essential Details.
By leaving out details that aren’t essential, scenes are strengthened because more focus is placed upon the action and the outcome. Use concrete nouns and active verbs so readers see and feel the character’s goals and desires. Make them care about the character, be desperate to find out what happens, and along the way, gasp, laugh, and cry.
Focus your descriptions in these areas:
- Action and dialogue that reveal your hero’s personality.
- Scene details that affect whether the hero can get what he wants.
- Something that raises a question that cries for an answer.
- Information that, if lacking, would keep the story from moving forward.
- Give details that make explanations unnecessary.
Your descriptions should strive for action and dialogue that allow readers to make their own decisions about the characters and speculation about the future. You could say, “John was angry,” but that explanation won’t let readers experience the emotion and make their own judgments. You can’t create a feeling of anger by saying someone was angry. But if you say, “John slammed his fist on the table, spilling coffee all over his manuscript,” no explanation is needed.