This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.

What’s wrong with this passage?

“Bullshit!” McKittrick yelled above the engine noise. The boat chugged and lurched through the choppy water, now a dull, angry green. He thought he might puke. He thought he might die. “You’re a liar. You lied before, you’re lying now.” He gripped the gunwale for support.

“Listen to me,” Bosch yelled. He saw his life pass before his eyes, and what he saw, he didn’t much like. But if this guy could help, he’d use him. He’d use anybody. “You said you remember every case.”

“I do, goddamnit! I can’t forget them.” How could he forget? They were the sad ones, the lost ones, the dangerous and defiled ones.

“Cut it back!” Bosch knew that if they couldn’t get the boat under control, they’d both die.

 McKittrick pulled the throttle back and the boat evened off and the noise reduced.

Sorry, Michael

With apologies to Michael Connelly, this passage is highly adapted from The Last Coyote. Connelly’s protagonist, Bosch, wants McKittrick, an ex-cop, to help solve a case. This is the way Connelly wrote the passage:

“Bullshit!” McKittrick yelled above the engine noise. “You’re a liar. You lied before, you’re lying now.”

“Listen to me,” Bosch yelled. “You said you remember every case.”

“I do, goddamnit! I can’t forget them.”

“Cut it back!”

McKittrick pulled the throttle back and the boat evened off and the noise reduced.

Overwriting, especially in dramatic scenes like this one, can kill the momentum of your story. Excess description, or showing detail that is already obvious from the dialogue, slows the action. Overtelling the scene can bore or even patronize your readers.

The Right Proportion

Problems like these are problems of proportion. You want to give readers enough detail and discussion to hold their interest, but you don’t want to give more detail than the scene requires. In an action scene, such as this one from The Last Coyote, readers want to know what happens next. They won’t be as interested in how the water looks or what the characters’ personal demons are.

Proportion also can go haywire when writers use their hobbies or expertise to flavor a narrative. While specialized knowledge can do a lot to lend authenticity to a tale and introduce readers to a new world, including too much detail can stall your story. Worse, it can drag out your page count, postpone your conflict, and bore your readers.

Too Big? Too Small? Or Just Right?

How can you be sure you’re providing the right amount of detail? Read your work carefully. Be sure that if you’re giving something a lot of space in your novel, it will pay off. You don’t want to go into a fifteen-page description of a 1930s-era World Series game and then not have baseball or teamwork be a major component of your story. Your readers will feel cheated.

Proportion is important, but you also don’t want to cut everything that doesn’t ruthlessly advance your plot. There will always be room for description or a philosophical rumination that reveals character or establishes atmosphere. Just be sure that when you include these side trips that they reflect and harmonize with your central plot and its themes, rather than hang out there like wet diapers on a sagging clothesline.

Checking for Size

If you’re in doubt that you’ve added too much detail, give your book a rest for a few days and come back to it with fresh eyes. What parts do you like the most? If what you like best are sections that don’t advance the plot, maybe you need to rethink your plot. Ask your critique partner or a trusted friend or colleague for their opinion, too.

Once you see how proportion can throw off your story, you can use it to advance your story. For example, if you have a surprise that you want to spring on your readers, shorten the buildup until you get there. Or spend more time on another scene to mask an important development.

Proportion is a Tool

Learn to control the proportions of your story. If you can’t, you may damage your work. But used well, proper proportions can draw readers into your book and bring it to life.

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