Is it Important?

If you are writing a text book, or a travel brochure, or any type of non-fiction, it’s fine to go into detail about how something works or looks or the history of its origin, but if you are writing fiction, all that detail may hurt the story.

Fiction is storytelling. It is the narrator sitting around the campfire holding her audience in rapt attention as she relates a tale of love, adventure, danger, or horror.

The moment the narrator starts describing something in minute detail, he chances losing his audience. His listeners either nod off or wander off. It’s only when the story moves forward, giving us just enough detail to picture the scene and participants, along with enough conflict to keep us wondering if all will turn out all right, that we are willing to sit through the story, no matter how long.

A good writer/storyteller can relate a lot of information without it slowing the story or becoming boring. The key is how important that information is to either the story (plot) or characters. Perhaps more important is how do the characters react to the information?

I recently read a scene where a man takes a woman to a boxing match. It was the first time for the woman, but the man went often and knew what to expect. It could have been a scene that not only educated the reader about the history of professional boxing but also revealed information about the two characters. Instead, the author wrote about boxing in textbook format. We were told its history, who the greats were, and how it is judged.

In this case, none of this information was critical to the plot. This was simply a date they were on early in their relationship. At the end of the fight, he takes her home, and there’s an awkward moment when he isn’t sure if he should kiss her or not. I had no idea how the woman had viewed the fight. I don’t know if she found it barbaric or exciting. And no information was given regarding how her date was reacting. I have no idea if she liked his reaction to the fight or if it bother her.

For me, this scene was a waste of my time. It didn’t develop the love story because I didn’t read anything in the scene that helped me understand why the woman might fall in love with this man. It didn’t have any conflict: they went, they saw, they left. If the writer had given us the woman’s reaction or her questions as the man related the history of boxing, and then showed how she reacted when actually seeing a fight, I would have learned something about her and about him…and also about boxing.

There were numerous ways the writer could have made the scene an important part of the story, but he didn’t do that. As writers, we need to look at every scene and ask ourselves: Is it important? Is it developing the plot or the characters? If the scene isn’t doing one or the other or both, it’s merely filler. In that case, get rid of it or rewrite it.

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10 Responses to Is it Important?

  1. Joe Novara says:

    Great topic. I would add, try to find the least words but most resonant words to describe a scene. That way readers get to fill in the blanks with their own memory banks…a Picasso line sketch versus a Breughel Dutch city.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful post. I believe that authors sometimes do this because they want to educate their readers about something they are speaking about but it’s not necessary. If the readers want to get more information, they will search it out. But what a fiction author should do is convey the scene in the five senses, giving the reader more a feel of the event than the details.

  3. Writing can be overly researched. We get so enthusiastic, we info dump. That’s why edits are so important.

    • Maris Soule says:

      So true, Jacqueline. Sometimes it’s difficult to know how much to use and what to eliminate, which makes a critique group or good editor so important.

  4. Diane Burton says:

    I try to think of research as an iceberg and only put into the story the tip above the water. As you & Melissa point out, using the senses is so important. That would’ve added so much to that boxing scene–the smells (sweat, blood), the noise of the crowd, etc. and her reaction. Great post, Maris. I hope you’re enjoying sunny FL.

  5. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    Great post, Maris, and a good reminder. I’m currently reading a book by a well-known author and struggling because the story is being told TO me. I don’t know what the characters are thinking or feeling. I don’t know if I care about them or not.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, HiDee. I think you pointed out the important part of “Showing” a story. I know I want to know how a character is feeling when something important happens. It helps me understand and care about the character.