Tuesday, February 15, 2011


Hey FFFers - where are you? I miss hearing from you.

The next chapter in Self Editing for Fiction Writers is on proportion. A writer can undermine the excitement of a scene with a blow by blow description of every movement the characters make. Writing all the little details not only bores the reader, it also leaves nothing for the imagination and sometimes makes the reader feel patronized.

It used to be that generous, detailed descriptions were the norm, but not anymore. Because of TV and movies, the reader is used to jump-cuts from scene to scene rather than long transitional shots. Here's a short example:

The phone rang. Bob walked across the room and picked it up. "Hello," he said.

That's not too long, but you can write it this way without taking away anything:

The phone rang.
"Hello," Bob said.

It depends on what has happened before the phone rang, of course, but you see what I mean.

We are a microwave society. We like things to move quickly. In your first draft, write all you want. But during revisions, you need to pay attention. Most larger proportion problems can be avoided if you simply pay attention to your story. That doesn't mean you ruthlessly cut every detail. You want to find a balance. You want to create the mood for your scene. Try taking a look at your manuscript as if it were the first time you've ever read it. It helps to set it aside for a few days before you read through it and make changes. A fresh set of eyes is best - so share it with your writing partner or group.

Be honest with yourself. We love our words, don't we? But we have to ask ourselves if something is really needed. Does it add to the story? Does it bog the action down? Does it bore you? If a section or sentence doesn't quite sit right with you, it probably needs to be changed or eliminated.

Fantasy can lend itself to lots of detail. Do you have a scene where you're not sure if you have too much detail? I'm happy to take a look. Let's get talking about writing again!


  1. Thanks for confirming my suspicions, or rather confirming what I suspected I was observing in today's fiction. I'm amazed at how much material (whole pages) that I'm cutting in my present novel project. Likely, I'm still not cutting enough.


  2. I keep on telling myself I WILL comment with each post! So I'm commenting for the previous post now!
    I really liked your scene. In fact, it reminded me of one I wrote with my characters! As I read fantasy more and more, I see that there is "nothing new under the sun."
    Ideas that I think are so original are actually used by fantasy writers before me. I had an ingenious idea of a door that opens at only one time of the year with rays of a celestial object, and I found something exactly like that in Hobbit!
    Another central aspect of my story was already used in the Harry Potter books.
    And I also have the idea of a chosen one who doesn't realize her uniqueness (similar to you, Pam) but when I realized that it was really similar to a lot of stories, I switched around the plot a little bit.

    I think the whole key is to have a twist to everything. Sometimes I grumble, but adding the extra twist always makes the story much more fun and interesting.

    I have one question about point of view. I write in third person, but I also like the Tolkien/Lewis style of a narrator who talks to the reader. I know that that style is not commonly used now, but is it a TOTAL no-no?
    Could I do narration, but only get into ONE person's head, unlike Tolkien and Lewis, who often tell us what each person in the scene thinks about events.

    I hope you understand what I'm saying! And thanks for posting. It's nice to think of different aspects of writing.

  3. Thanks, Court Ellen!

    Rachel, I do understand what you're saying. Tolkien and Lewis got away with using a narrator's voice because of the time period they wrote in. I don't see a lot of that today, but I've learned you can do anything, if you do it with excellence. That means writing and writing and writing. It also means reading, reading, reading. We don't want to copy other writers, but we can learn from them.

    I know exactly how you feel when you think you've got something fresh and new, only to read something similar in another book. :) The Bible says, there's nothing new under the sun. So true! That's why we need to take an old idea and twist it. We are each unique people with unique personalities and ideas. Sure, it's more work, but totally worth taking the time to come up with a twist.

    I went through The Hero's Journey last year. Every story ever written follows that pattern. You can change up the order, but you'll find you use all the parts in your writing. That's okay. You can't get away from it and you really don't want to, in this case.

    I've been advised to read and know what's out there, but not too much or your brain will absorb ideas without you realizing it, and before you know it, you'll be "copying" off someone else. We need a balance.

    Hope that helps!

  4. Hi Pam,

    I've been away for a while, but I keep coming back.

    I hear what your saying and a month ago I did an exercise where I tried to show lots of detail - trying to show that my character was using all five of their sensed.

    I like the way the short story came out, but reading it to a group of high school kids I could see how there was too much tail and it took away from the story I was trying to tell.

    I think there are times for lots of detail, but you have to be careful not to over do it. Maybe it's like all things. Too much violence, too much romance, too much thinking. All things in moderation.

    Thanks four your insightful posts.


  5. hi Doug! Welcome back! Isn't it amazing what you hear when you read your stuff out loud? I always do that - or I have someone else read to me.

    And I agree - all things in moderation is best, especially if it's excellently written.