Monday, February 5, 2018

Over Explanation Pisses on Ambiance

I once had a coworker who demonstrated to me, step by step, how to fill a bottle.

I had asked him—well no, asked the manager next to him technically—where to refill the sanitizer to which he happily obliged me by taking me through every stage of the process. We had had a strange energy between us anyway, I feeling a little put off by his asking me how long I’d worked there each and every time we ran into each other. A few other occasions where he explained something to me that really wasn’t necessary, but this was what took the cake.

As he showed me how to pour the green liquid from a giant bottle into a smaller, I gave him a look. He read it loud and clear and handed them over. We haven’t had problems since.

I’m reading a short story by a peer that… well, we’ll say I’m having a hard time with. I try not to be a frustrated writer, and for the context of this read through, I’m not actually offering advice. I won’t go into the hows and whys I’m doing it for identification reasons, but sometimes I have to step back and give myself a breather.

I mean, part of the issue is that I recognize some of the hiccups myself. Another part of the issue is, however, I just want to write, “DUH,” across half the page.

The paragraph that got me to this point, however, was a rather long play by play of someone getting into a car. The story, to set the scene a little better, was told over the course of several days, so not only was this explanation somewhat obvious, it was odd for the style of writing. Why go into so much detail here of all places?

Unnecessary detail, when it’s not boring, is just decoration. And I mean that in a good way. You need some “superfluous” information to set the scene, otherwise you’d do fine with just summary. Do scents really affect our understanding of a murder? No, but they enhance it. They affect our emotions. “So they’re necessary!” Well, you could affect those emotions in other ways too. You don’t need to talk about smells; it’s just one way to do it. Stripping a book down only to its bare necessities is boring and clinical. You want to create a mood, you talk about things that aren’t directly relevant. Sort of like how the presentation of your food doesn’t change the taste, but it does change the meal. Putting a stupid little leaf isn’t necessary; it’s just nice.

I say this because I’ve found that a lot of successful advice wants you to describe more. “Show don’t tell,” as the prime example, suggests you go into the moment, show images and actions, and have the events occur in real time. In fact, that really was the most useful advice I’ve ever gotten—to describe the actions and visuals as if the reader was really seeing it unfold.

So why is it that some excess details actually cause the exact opposite effect?

It’s actually my biggest complaint in beginner fiction: this over-explanatory, almost condescending series of sterile descriptions, giving readers a play-by-play of boring minutiae of life.

“He picked up the three inch blade with his left hand and turned to face the girl who was standing right behind him and staring at him with large blue eyes underneath blonde bangs.”

Sometimes, the problem isn’t actually the information. We want to know what a character looks like. We want to know what the room looks like. We want to have a sense of spatial reasoning. It has more to do with the way it’s described, how rhythm of speech, motive, and opinion is lost behind the writer’s obligation. No one wants to read a paragraph with the clear subtext of, “Now I will describe what the character looks like.”

But in this case, the problem really was with what he was telling me:

I know what it’s like to get into a car. I know how to get into a car.

Sure, you can have a character put on his seatbelt and not make me feel condescended at, but it serves a purpose. It’s an action in the middle of a moment that’s been slowed down due to its relevance; it breaks up the scene to enhance the flow and pacing; maybe it’s an important detail that will come up later.

But overall, don’t tell me something that I already know.

We don’t need to be told your teenage protagonist goes to high school, we need to know what his life is like that’s not true for everyone else, the unexpected truths of his reality. So, you can have him going to high school, but there should be more going on than just, "He got up in the morning and went to school because he's that's what teenagers do." You might start your book out in academia because, well, that just makes sense, but if your novel is going into detail about how he has parents and a couple of nerdy friends, but isn’t super popular and isn’t too great at school… you’re sort of wasting my time. Certainly, use the expected to emphasis the differences, but don’t just tell us how normal they are without making any sort of commentary on it. Say more than just that.

Even movies like Office Space—all about being bored at a mundane job—take bold choices and make the characters’ conflicts specific. Not everyone lives in L.A. and has to deal with traffic on the freeway to get to work in the morning, but it’s relatable enough that most people could laugh at the exaggeration of the experience. Sure, "I am driving to work now and have traffic," isn't a novel concept, but the way that it's talked about is a good mix of satire of the expected. A new perspective in how it talks about mundane events, a new way to tell an old story.
And that’s kind of the point.

The difference between creating mood with details and killing it is the uniqueness of those details. Even if they are trivial, even if they’re surrounded by expectation, there should be one little thing that isn’t exactly like what the reader already has experienced, what the reader already knows.

It’s hard to determine the difference between decoration and clutter even in a visual sense, but a good rule of thumb, for writing at least, is to not spend so much time with information that your reader has probably already figured out on her own. It can belong in a story, but underneath the real point, the things she doesn’t already know.

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