If you read a novel like most people do, you try to picture the people, the scene, and the action as the story progresses, as if you were watching a movie. The details the author provides are, presumably, intended to facilitate not just the visualizing of the action, but your understanding of its importance. So more details are good, right? Not always. Details in and of themselves are not helpful; it’s their significance that matters.
A point-of-view character’s global state—physical, mental, emotional, and, at times, spiritual–changes as a story progresses. In novels where chapters alternate among different point-of-view characters, their “global state” helps readers differentiate among them. Yet, a moment-by-moment inventory of all these factors becomes tiresome. Worse is when authors pause the action in a tense scene or before a big reveal to give a rundown of a character’s feelings. If adequate groundwork has been laid, readers can guess how the character feels, anyway. Constantly interfering with the progress of the action makes readers stop caring—and reading.
Suppose a story provides a minutely detailed description of the appearance and state-of-mind of a man walking to a bus stop. And then suppose he’s hit by the bus and is only a walk-on in the story. Readers who followed the author’s lead and created a precise mental picture of a character they’ll never encounter again are justly annoyed. Still, the man did wear a mud-splattered overcoat with a missing button. Out of a lengthy description, those few details might be significant. Perhaps he was an inveterate jaywalker, which might be worth knowing, particularly when the bus driver goes to trial.
In other words, minimize the details that aren’t relevant to the story, and don’t merely strand readers on an island of facts. Here’s a good example:
“He was thirty-two years old, trim, a tough guy, six foot two, and, essentially, in your face. He was wearing one of his two-dozen identical black Armani suits, with one of this three-dozen identical navy button-downs, with one of his four-dozen thin black ties. . . . As for his hair, it was thick, the blackest black, and slicked-and-greased back like a Jersey guido.”
Every sentence raises questions. “A tough guy?” “In your face”—how so? What’s with the weird wardrobe? Is he a New Jersey guido? Questions like these keep readers reading. Which is what you want, and they do too.
(The excerpt is from William Baer’s entertaining new novel New Jersey Noir: Cape May.)