This article first appeared on the Writers Fun Zone.
Why do some books stick with readers? Decades—even centuries—after they’re written, readers remember Gone with the Wind, Pride and Prejudice, Moby Dick, and Oliver Twist.
Readers remember these books because they have interesting characters that struggle to solve their problems in a world that feels authentic. The stories, whatever the time frame, are still engaging. But books do not have to be set in the “real world” to be believable. Think of Fahrenheit 451, Dune, 1984, the Twilight series. Science fiction, futuristic novels, and vampire stories might have to work harder to build a believable world, but when they do, readers willingly suspend their disbelief because the accumulated details feel true.
It’s all about truthiness
How do novelists build that “truth”? With detail. Details carry the facts and visuals that help readers see your world and identify and empathize with your characters. However, not all details are created equal.
William Strunk, Jr., in The Elements of Style, says that details should be “specific, definite, and concrete.” Let’s say you want to give your hero some descriptive details. You write, “John Smith was thirty-seven, tall, with wavy dark hair and a deep tan.” You’ve got details there, and they’re true, so why is that so boring?
It’s because these details aren’t significant. These descriptive details sound more like a police wanted poster than an individual and immediate identification. Let’s say that John Smith has just entered a nineteenth-century parlor at tea time. To make him more memorable, he could be “thirty-seven, unmarried and likely to remain so, for he was stout, lazy, and unaccustomed to exert himself, except at the dinner table.”
It’s all about judginess
This description of John Smith is also “true,” but it conveys much more authorial opinion. You might think that this kind of detail looks too much like telling, not showing. Is that acceptable?
You want to strike a balance between being so generic that no one will read past page one, and giving readers an unsubstantiated infodump. Remember that people express opinions all the time. They’re conversation starters and touch points for reality. We ask: How was the movie? Do you like your new teacher? He’s lost a lot of weight. Some might call this gossip, even. But the reverse of gossiping—of passing judgment—is indifference. You don’t want to sanctify or condemn your characters, but you do want readers to care about them, good or bad, love them or hate them—and the way you do that is by directing readers to what you want them to see. Not to provide any direction is to invite indifference. Who cares about a guy who’s got wavy dark hair? Nobody.
Often when writers say they don’t want to sound judgmental about their characters, what they mean is that their characters are complex—that their behaviors have a reason, and the writers want the reader to understand the characters’ dichotomies. In that case, if John Smith is more complex than that he just eats too much, find a way to make all sides of the case. You could add, for example, “His failing eyesight and game leg made him a humble houseguest, and he had contrived to become an excellent conversationalist, and thus was welcome wherever he went.” That way you’ve provided the reader with a fuller, detailed, and interesting view of John Smith as he enters the parlor. And of course as you write your book, you’ll back up this initial insight with actions and speech.
Judginess leads to truthiness
“Show, don’t tell” is good advice, but it’s confusing, too. Your job as a novelist is to use your words to focus attention on the “true” experience, the place where vitality and understanding lie. Significant, concrete, specific detail can help direct your readers to that understanding.