Thursday, July 17, 2008


When is there too much detail and too much procedural information in your novel? When I teach composition and writing the research paper, I tell my wide-eyed students that the reader is a hungry cuss. That you cannot ever really feed the reader ENOUGH details, facts, figures, charts, information, story examples, and procedural items in the event that you wish to persuade or move someone to your side of an argument. That the writer’s job is no different from that of a prosecuting attorney—evidence atop evidence atop evidence. You want to win, pour on the evidence until it is coming out the reader’s pores. There’s a great deal to recommend this approach in a thesis paper say on How Microwaves Actually Work. But how true is it in writing fiction? At what point do you respect your reader to have gotten the point? There is the fear you fall into writing down to your reader, and readers of fiction are savvy and smart, and they “get it” with a few mere suggestive facts.

Some writers pour on the detail in describing a person, a place, or a thing. A character is given three pages of descript down to the type of toothpaste a character uses, while the story is at a standstill; or a place like a courtroom in a Grisham novel is given ten pages of description; or worse yet a boulder is described for twenty five pages by James Michener. Dean R. Koontz will devote paragraphs to tell you it is hot outside, but in doing so, he makes you and his character sweat and begin to pull off clothing, and that can be damned effective writing. But can you overdooooo the detail, the facts, the information, the evidence of heat in a scene? Does it do you well to exhaust the thesaurus for hot? In the right hands, yes, and for the right purpose yes, but there are scenes that are KILLED DEAD by overkill of details and procedures even in a police procedural novel, or the one-too-many autopsies in a medical examiner novel—especially when the procedure for the autopsy is followed faithfully for each autopsy, faithfully and laboriously and boringly. If your novel requires three or five or six autopsies, do we have to begin at the beginning of each autopsy? Do we need to see every detail, every cut? Can we agree that the reader, put through one procedure detail for detail, can extrapolate, can imagine, can move on from the end of a second autopsy? Or gather what is needed from a discussion after the slicing and dicing? And as for police procedure, not every detail of police work is inherently interesting, such as the forms needing to be filled out. In a nonfiction context, every detail might be requisite; in a fiction context no. Especially the most boring of police detail.

The worst thing I have ever witnessed in this regard did not come from a first time author, a newbie, a wannabe, or even a student in one of my comp classes, but from a professional author with many books to his credit. Said author breaks with the reader and all suspension of disbelief by placing a blank form straight out of the FBI inbox-outbox office supply. Yes a form that is filled out on a “profile” of an UNSUB or unsubstantiated suspect, a serial killer. The form in and of itself, on the page, blank and “staring the reader in the face” looks and reads about as interesting as an application for a library card, or something from the Department of Motor Vehicles. It jarred me right out of the book. Admittedly, this is an extreme form of what NOT to do in a police or FBI procedural. Much more interesting to have one’s character complaining about the form than to “reveal” the form on the page. In a novel, the appearance of a fill-in-the-blank form is a good way to KILL YOUR OWN SCENE.

The other area that kills a scene in the police procedural (or any suspense or mystery or thriller or crime novel) is making the procedure more important than the action or drama, more important than the characters, the setting, and the scene itself. If you sacrifice drama for dullness, you are going down the wrong path. In my Edge Series, I pay a lot more attention to police procedure and street-level law than I do in my FBI ME Instinct Series. In either case, I can’t sacrifice my dramatic moment, be it making an arrest or making an incision, to the demands of procedural detail. I have read ME novels wherein the first autopsy scene is merely duplicated, word for word, cut and paste to the next autopsy scene—once five times in the same book. This kills it for me.

Bottom line is, while you should study/research/know police procedure if you are writing a novel that hinges on procedure (a main character with such attention to detail that it defines him or her), it becomes way too easy to spend too much time on procedural details, and as with any info dump, the procedures can become focal points where you think you are doing right and good, hitting your mark, when in fact if you get lost in your research. Trust me, details in fiction are necessary but you can’t make the book about that; if you do, then the non-fictional elements of your story can and will take over to the degree a reader asks, “Why don’t I just read a nonfiction title on this? May as well. So when do you know to back off the heavy-handed procedure or hold back on the autopsy or whatever you’ve researched? Quick and dirty answer: When it gets boring, slows the story, stops the story; when you realize you’ve begun to leave out your main character(s) and they can’t be found in the scene because you’re now going on for paragraphs about procedures and forms and documentation and all that stuff that is needed in a thesis paper.

Historical novels can fall into the same trap, and science fiction for sure, for sure. When the history takes over or when the science takes over its then that the characters, like actors working a bad script, drop away. Picture this, Atlanta is burning at the hands of the Federal soldiers led by Sherman; the backdrop of fire looks like Hell itself, but silhouetted before and well in front of the fire and the fall of Atlanta is Brett and Scarlett holding forth, saving one another. Gone With The Wind is a love story first, a romance, and an historical second (backdrop to the romance is the history), and it is the job of the fictionalist to keep the two in place, no matter what devices you use to get your history or your science or your medicinal facts in. How many readers want to read in detail the war policy of the South, the war policy of the North in GWTW?

Which brings us to a final point about procedure(s) and how much attention we should give them in any sort of novel. When the procedure is interesting, even fascinating, we may well do the reader a justice to put the information before our readers. Say some point of history as told by one of the characters in the story, or a point of history in photography, a new science at the time, and how one man was a test case in copyright law for this new science. What is more boring than copyright law? But if it is an obsession and fascination for the character, it may be made fascinating. If it’s cool and interesting, go for it. Example two: I don’t care to see detail for detail how a military weapon is cleaned, but I might find it fascinating if the procedure is sifted through the mind of a man or woman who has an intimate relationship with the gun in question, and said character is what the scene is about and not the procedure itself. IF it is done in a boring method that drops out the guy with his five senses, we get a scene with a man who cleans his gun when I can simply be told that he’s expert at cleaning his gun. Don’t need to see detail for detail: vomiting or diarrhea, bathroom procedure for my hero or villain such as brushing of teeth, combing of hair (unless there’s a very good reason for it), walking in a girdle beneath a huge party dress down a flight of stairs while in high heels, giving a dog a bath, giving a parakeet a meal, changing kitty litter, coring an apple, and countless other brainless procedures.

Much of police procedure, even in a police procedural novel, can be alluded to, and a mere mention or suggestion is like a photograph—worth a thousand words—and is often far more gratifying than the play by play when dealing with dress codes in the department, or what is between the covers of the Illinois Penal Code. Determine what is too boring to detail and you stand a chance of not killing your own scene. Final admonition, don’t stop the action to describe a process. Do so amid the action, make it part of the action/drama. Just as in don’t stop the action/drama to describe a person (character), place (setting), or thing (object or process).

Hope this helps all those who were wondering when is too much tooodammmuchh.

Happy Writing,

Rob Walker\shorts\


Peg Brantley said...

Good post, Rob. I got caught with making an information dump once. That was all it took.

I so wanna be Dean Koontz when I grow up.

Peg Brantley said...

Well, this is weird. I've never posted a comment twice in a row before. . . .

Okay, I tried an information dump one time, but never, ever, ever would I print a blank government form. Unless I was writing a book about filling in government forms. Which I would never do.