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Advancing the plot -- by Karla Brandenburg

I've been reading, and one of the books I chose, while the story is good, suffers from unnecessary detail. As a story teller, when you tell your best friend "what happened when I went to the fair" or some other event that happened in your life, you leave out the things they don't care about. You'll tell them about the concert on the main stage, about the rides and games, about the livestock, if applicable. You're not going to tell them you left the fair and had dinner in town (unless that's relevant to the fair for some reason, say "and then I saw one of the clowns, in costume, at the restaurant!") If I was telling my girlfriend a story and stopped it to tell her about a side trip into town to shop, she'd very impatiently ask me what happened at the fair, tell me to get out of the weeds in order to direct me back to the topic at hand.

While background information and a character's history, or backstory, is important to a novel, when it doesn't advance the story forward, it can be the difference between someone who reads a novel in one sitting and someone who might take days to slog through it (or decide not to finish it because the author keeps straying from the action). If the proverbial restaurant doesn't have anything to do with advancing the plot, leave it out of the story.

When I'm writing, I often suffer from "author intrusion"— information I need to tell the story, but which the reader doesn't need or want, at least not all at once. It can be drizzled in a little at a time, but an "info dump" will take you out of the story at hand. An example?

She heard a bump in the basement. "Is anybody down there" she called down the stairs as she flipped on the light. She was wearing blue jeans and sneakers and was glad she'd put her hair up in a bun.

When your heroine is about to go walking into danger, do you care what she's wearing? or how she's wearing her hair? I think not! You want to know what's in that basement! This information is relevant to the story, but it might come earlier on, or later, if she, say, falls and tears a hole in her new blue jeans when she trips going down the stairs. That's another way to "show" your readers what she's wearing without stopping the story to tell you.

While editing my own work, I keep these types of scenes in mind, how much time I take away from the plot, along with dozens of other silly mistakes that happen when you write a novel. Another thing I keep a sharp eye on is how often I repeat information. To the point where a reader will think, "oh yeah," or will they think, "I got it already, can you tell me something new?"

Details are important, but they should be interspersed seamlessly and they should advance the story, not take you on meandering detours that don't go anywhere. Stay on topic and keep the action moving!

Posted by Karla Brandenburg 13 Oct 2015 at 01:25
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Responses to this blog

Darthrevan 14 Oct 2015 at 19:02  
hi, great post.

I had a similar experience recently. I was reading a book based on a rather popular and long standing film franchise and the entire first chapter is spent describing the main character's quarters(which we never see again), a uniform he was designing(which he doesn't wear), even his likeness(even though he's on the cover). while i was spending the entire time waiting for the plot to begin, which takes until the end of the chapter, making everything proceeding it almost pointless.

imo, description in creating a new world is awesome, but as the OP said, it has to have a point or else it drags the story some. personally i like to keep things moving as quickly as possible and keep description to a minimum. Less is more, more often then not.
Karlabran 14 Oct 2015 at 19:36  
Agreed, Darthrevan. I know a very successful YA author whose descriptions are so minimal one of her readers (who was African American) related to the lead (who was Hispanic). They asked her "that guy, he's black, right?" She shrugged her shoulders and said "okay." Whatever made him relate - it works. Without in-depth descriptions. Its the deep POV that resonates more than "what does he look like?"
Kathyklb 18 Oct 2015 at 07:03  
I think I suffer from this particular going back to do some more editing.......
Karlabran 18 Oct 2015 at 15:14  
Good luck, Kathy! Writing means editing. I think we all do it, especially in first drafts!

Bizboston 19 Oct 2015 at 02:14  
I'm reading "Writing Fiction for Dummies," and it has the same exact message. The authors advise that the writer should know about 10 times more about your characters than your reader knows. It's difficult - I edit out paragraphs sometime of history and backstory I love about my characters. I guess I'm going to have to make it more of a habit.
Karlabran 19 Oct 2015 at 19:07  
I've written entire chapters that needed to be cut, primarily information I, as the author, needed to know about my characters, but which should be summarized in a paragraph or less. One of the hardest things to do!
Consty 10 Nov 2015 at 17:38  
I try to keep to the main action but sometimes its tempting to want to throw ? few backstory here and there.

Wonderful post
16 Nov 2015 at 10:17  
Thanks for a great post. I really enjoyed it. The more details you give while describing a character the harder it is for a reader to correlate with that character. There has to be a place left for a reader's fantasy to turn on and do the rest of the work for you.
Margaretjl 8 Jun 2018 at 13:06  
Thank you for your post. I agree with you, the details are important. Reading a "dry" story is not always interesting. "I came there ... He said ...", etc. The story, as for me, should be intriguing: "I woke up and looked out the window, the bright sun was shining in the street and the birds were chattering in their own language." The day promised to be wonderful ... ". That is, the story should be intriguing, but at the same time, so that it does not go to the description of the purchased women's handbag for 5 pages ...

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