Get to the point! How many times have you been listening to someone relating an incident and your ears are nearly bursting at all the trivial detail?
The story progresses at a snail’s pace and you’re being treated to every little bit of who said what, word for word. “He said yes so I said no then he said yes really and I said no kidding…” Agh! Enough said! Then there’s all the background information that goes back almost as far as prehistoric times. I’m almost expecting a woolly mammoth to walk into the scene, though I wouldn’t mind that so much because it might provide a welcome bit of interest at least. And to top it off, there are volumes of opinion, often ill-informed, on every little development in the story.
Sometimes I get so tuned-out that I find myself nodding and mmming in all the wrong places until the other person ends up saying “Are you listening to me?” Usually I reassure them I am listening (manners, thanks Mum) but I wish I had the honesty to say “Nope! I just can’t hang in there. However your story ends, I’m past caring.”
It’s the same with a lot of books and short stories, I find. It’s often why I abandon a book after a few chapters, even if it comes highly recommended by a well-respected reviewer or made it to the Man Booker shortlist. Some of those reviewers and Booker judges must have an assurance of a really long life with not a lot of work on their plate, I reckon. As for me, life’s too short and way too busy to persist with heaps of unnecessary details.
I was grateful to the friend who recommended I read Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Even more than that, I was grateful to him for telling me to persist past the first six chapters because, however much I wanted to give up, it would be worth it. He was right, it was one if the best stories I’ve ever read. Though I know quite a few readers who gave up on the book before the story really took off. So I don’t understand why those first six chapters couldn’t have been edited down to one really good chapter with just the essentials to kick-start the story. Perhaps the publishers were worried no one would buy such a slim book. But I would have. And I would’ve appreciated being spared all those unnecessary details.
Someone – don’t ask me who, I’m not good with details like that – anyway, someone said that reading a story with too many unimportant details is like receiving a letter that has been beautifully written but a small child has scribbled all over it. The meaning is in there somewhere but it’s all too much work to get to it.
Details can get in the way of a story, they can hinder it’s forward movement. And goodness knows we all like to feel we’re getting somewhere rather than just jogging on the spot. By details, I mean anything from a single word to a phrase to a whole scene. It can be description, backstory, context, action or dialogue.
When I’m writing, I have to remind myself constantly that not everything in my head needs to make it onto the page. I ask myself two questions to keep the details to a minimum. First, I ask myself whether the reader really needs to know this particular detail. If not, I cross it out. Then I ask myself if the story would still stand on it’s feet if I omitted this detail. If the story is not about to suffer then I cross it out. I probably don’t cross out as much as I should but those two questions really help keep a lot of unnecessary details out of my stories. I’m pretty sure the stories are better for it and, I hope, better for the reader.