Six impossible things

The Devil’s in the Details

In the comments on our last exciting episode, accio_aqualung asked:

So pretend you’ve spent so much time on something that you’ve got gobs and gobs of backstory and little trivial details, like the MC is  terminally left handed or her brother has to organize his pens in a very specific way or their uncle won the very first US Open. These things have nothing to do with the plot but add humanizing quirks to the characters that would make them so much more interesting in real life. How do you find the balance of details without hitting overload?

I will begin by pointing out that this is a problem faced to a far greater degree by every writer who writes nonfiction, reasonably accurate and well-grounded historical fiction, AU, or even fiction with a modern setting that the writer expects many readers to be unfamiliar with. The real world is full of WAY too many interesting details for any writer to fit all of them into a book. Even the Encyclopedia Britannica gets edited.

To me, the problem doesn’t seem to be the presence of all those interesting details; no, the real problem is the degree of attachment the writer feels to them, whether they’ve come from the writer’s imagination or from tons of research. We joke about the writers who seem to be thinking “I’ve suffered for my art by doing all this research; now I’m going to make the reader suffer, too” but really, writers are much more like geeks — “But this detail is SO COOL, how can I leave it out?” Too often, the end result is a lot of cool information that doesn’t belong in the story — hence the oft-quoted advice to “murder your darlings.”

Unfortunately, as with everything else in writing, there are no hard-and-fast rules for determining what the “right” level of detail is for backstory. It depends on the story, the writer, the style, the conceit of the book, and so on. A lot of it is practice and instinct (at least for me; if there are folks out there who use some other method, do please comment!). If your style is modeled on Hemingway, you probably won’t have as much description (and therefore you will include fewer details) than if your style is more like E.R. Eddison.  

However (there’s always a “however” when I’m doing one of these) there are a few things you can and should consider. First and foremost is the question “How does this background detail affect the way the character acts or thinks?”

If your main character is terminally left-handed, that’s going to affect how she does just about everything physical, even if it’s only in small ways. Her left-handedness is going to affect nearly everything she does with her hands, from how she opens a door to smearing the ink when she’s in a hurry writing a note. You don’t just drop the information into the story in one place and forget about it; if it’s a real detail (rather than mere window-dressing), it will  be an important consideration whenever you describe her actions, all through the story.

The second question I’d suggest is “How does this detail affect other characters?” If the brother organizes his pens in a certain way, it’s going to make it easier or harder for his sister (or friends) to find something to write with when they need it in a hurry (and it’ll give siblings and friends something to tease him about, if they’re so inclined). Again, it’s something that will likely come up naturally in the course of the story, rather than something you have to figure out how to include.

What this all adds up to is the question “Is this detail important to the story?” “Important” does not mean it has to be a plot-point. Really, “important” only means that you aren’t cramming this thing into the story just because you know it. If nobody in the story is interested in golf or fame or family small-talk or sports history, there may be no reason for that US Open winner ever to come up. If one of those things does happen, then maybe that detail will come up, and the story will be richer for it…but if you manufacture such a conversation just to get that interesting detail in, it will very likely weaken the story.

Writers almost always know far more about their characters, the backstory, and the setting than ever belongs in a book or story. If you are determined to make sure the reader knows everything, you can try offering your eventual publisher some appendices…but don’t be surprised if they don’t want them.

  1. Hm, I think you brought up something important that I never realized. By training, I am an historian and have spent more time than any sane person should poring over battlefield narrations and trying to humanize people like Stonewall Jackson from their quirks and foibles. Books like these are also woefully short on pacing, seminal action climaxes and the twist at the end where you find out it was the sidekick whodunit.

    Actually, this really made some of my own quirks and foibles fall into place and make so much more sense.

    Any random tidbits about Mendanbar and Cimorene?

    • accio_aqualung – A lot depends on what you are trying to accomplish with your narrative, on a macro scale. Meaning, most genre fiction is trying to entertain the reader by telling a story; most historical nonfiction is trying to enlighten or inform while being accurate as to the facts. Quite a few of the folks I’ve known who write nonfiction (whether they’re journalists or scholars) have a bit of trouble making the initial jump from nonfiction to fiction, in part because they have a lot of practice doing some writing techniques, but little or no practice with others. (You put your finger right on it with the line about “…woefully short on pacing, seminal action climaxes and the twist at the end…”)

      As always, the first step in fixing the problem is diagosis – it’s really hard to straighten out a problem if you aren’t really sure what the problem is.

      As for Mendanbar and Cimorene – a) it’s been way too long since I wrote them for me to remember random tidbits, and b) I don’t construct my characters in that way anyway. More on this in a couple of days, I think…

  2. I have the other problem – not including enough details, so I’ve solved that problem by going through and sprinkling details that add to the plot, setting or characterization somehow (yes, I’m using your 3 pillar ideas now but up until reading that post of yours I was doing it without knowing exactly what I was doing) 😉

  3. At the moment I have a character who needs a hobby hobbies or SOMETHING because the way the story is written his only interest is not dying. (Which is a legitimate concern, but makes him come across as a little flat) so your post was very timely.

    I had to grin at the examples of how being a lefty affects other arias of a person’s life. My mother gave up trying to teach me to use a sewing machine (you have to feed the cloth in backwards) and when I was invited to take a crocheting class, the poor instructor was a bit at a loss on how to teach me the stitches.

  4. Hm. It just dawned on me that I tend to narrate like the historian, lots of cohesive details that describe a person (height, weight, eye color) doing a thing (reason why, the thing, next step). At the end, well, most people don’t make it to the end of the books I read because other people find them boring. I must be one of the only people who reads civil war biographies for fun. But when I hit a wall with my writing, I’ll go raid the children’s and young adult sci-fi/fantasy sections at the library, devour everything, and be inspired for another few months or so. Perhaps I’ve been subconsciously self-correcting?

    • Alex – There are a lot of writers who have to go back and “layer in” different things in the second draft. Caroline Stevermer calls it doing a “sponge rubber dinosaur” first draft, that needs to be soaked in water overnight before it swells up to it’s proper size!

      Chicory – Not dying is certainly a powerful motivation, but it does put most of the responsibility for moving the plot along on your villain or antagonist (because if he ever stops trying to kill your main character, said main character will have no more motivation to do anything…) If you can come up with something else he really wants (a girl, a trophy, an ice cream sunday, half an hour to read a good book…), that will probably help. Try asking yourself what would distract him – what is the thing that, if he saw it go by out of the corner of his eye while driving, he’d turn and look.

      accio_aqualung – Sounds as if it’s possible you’re trying to self-correct, but if your first-readers are still finding your stuff too boring to finish, you may need to do a little more conscious work! Nonfiction biographies tend to be big on narrative summary – “telling” rather than “showing” – because they’re supposed to be factual, and with historical personages, most of their specific and detailed actions and dialog would have to be invented. (That is, you can say “General Grant ordered the cannons to fire,” but you wouldn’t say “‘Fire!’ Grant shouted hoarsely, waving at the artillery,” because you don’t actually know that he was hoarse or that he waved or even that he shouted “Fire.”)

  5. Part of my problem is that the character in question is actually a secondary one -someone my heroine is trying to rescue- so I’m never actually in his head.
    What could distract him… that question could be really useful to me. Thanks. 🙂 One thing I KNOW he’d like is a nice juicy plum. (Or ANYTHING that tastes better than stale bread and water, actually). Maybe I can work that into the story.

  6. I love that idea! It makes me feel much better about my first drafts. 😉

Questions regarding foreign rights, film/tv subrights, and other business matters should be directed to Pat’s agent Ginger Clark, Curtis-Brown, Ltd., 10 Astor Place, 3rd Floor New York, NY 10003,