Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Brushing Teeth and Cleaning House

Kathryn Page Camp

People look at a picture of a toddler cleaning a toilet and say, "Cute." Replace the toddler with an adult, and they say, "Who cares." Fiction works that way, too.
Every scene in every novel—or in any type of writing, for that matter—must have a purpose. In fiction, the scene should either develop a character or move the story along. Everyday details that do neither make the story boring.
I don’t want to read about a character’s morning routine. In fact, I assume it’s pretty much like mine. He gets out of bed, uses the toilet, brushes his teeth, takes a shower, gets dressed, and so on. You don’t have to tell me any of this.
As mentioned above, however, there are two exceptions. I’m willing to pay attention to details that show me something interesting about a character or advance the plot. But even then I only want those details that make the point.
The mere fact that a protagonist brushes his teeth every morning doesn’t tell the reader a thing. But if you show him brushing them exactly 100 strokes, we might conclude that he is obsessive. And no, I don’t want to count every single one with him.
As a reader I don’t usually care to intrude on a character while she is getting dressed. But I’m interested if she gets up at two o’clock in the afternoon, rummages through the dirty clothes hamper, and pulls on a pair of rumpled jeans and a stained T-shirt without taking off her pajamas. And if she goes to the store that way, so much the better.
Similarly, I don’t usually like to watch the protagonist clean her house. Still, maybe you want to show that she’s a cleanliness freak who wrestles with every piece of heavy furniture so she can pull it out and clean behind it, a sloppy person who only dusts the furniture that is in direct sunlight, or a bored person who cleans an already clean house because she has nothing else to do. Even those characteristics may not matter to the story. If they do, show us the details. But if they don’t, leave them out.
You can also use otherwise mundane details to move the plot along. Maybe your protagonist cleans house and discovers the murder weapon just before the police knock on her door with a search warrant. Or maybe the antagonist injected the tube of toothpaste with poison and the protagonist is one step closer to death every time he brushes his teeth. One caution in the second situation, however. You probably don’t want the protagonist to know he is being slowly poisoned, but the reader needs at least a clue. Otherwise, you can’t count on the reader staying with you until you reveal all.
Do you have Facebook friends who tell you every routine detail about their day? I hide those people from my news feed, and you probably do, too. Nobody wants to read about mundane things like brushing teeth and cleaning house. Not usually, anyway.
If it doesn’t aid the story, leave it out. If it tells me something I need to know, make it interesting.
Because excessive detail creates a book readers won’t finish.

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