The Writer’s Imaginary Camera

I found an interesting thread on r/writing about writing (rather than ‘am I allowed to write a ghost if I’m not dead’, circle-jerks about being writers but not writing, requests for emotional support), from a screenwriter trying to do a novel.

In response to:

At about 855 words per scene, your scenes are almost certainly too sparsely written for a novel. That is incredibly short for an average.

I can almost guarantee that you are doing a LOT more telling than showing and neglecting atmosphere and detail. Go through each of your scenes and flesh them out more.

He says:

???
Character enters room with another character. Characters discuss topics. Character leaves room. End of scene.
What am I supposed to do to “flesh it out more?”

I got the impression that as he wrote, he was picturing the events from a camera’s perspective. I picture scenes I’m writing from cinematic angles and such, like anyone probably would.

The issue here is execution (as others pointed out, it is possible to write in ‘dramatic POV’, like Hemingway, and pull it off), and bearing in mind the difference between screenplays and novels in how the audience or reader ends up getting it.

A screenplay will end up getting seen through the work of actors, directors, set designers, etc. A novel won’t – there’s only what’s on the page. So a prose writer might imagine a sweeping shot, a suitable soundtrack, and all the rest of it, without that actually being made available to anyone else reading.

There are also the different senses that novels can bring to bear. Smell. The physical sensations of characters. Direct, mental access. As well as the style of the prose itself. Even an unobtrusive, camera-like sort of language, which doesn’t draw attention to the words or rhythms themselves, is its own deliberate use of prose style.

Max Gladstone said some stuff about this a while back:

Just having a dim bulb epiphany about one reason journeyman writers so often spend page space having characters see things, notice things, etc, rather than just narrating what happens.

It’s cinema language, isn’t it? In film you can’t just have “she grabbed the gun from the desk and pointed it at him.” We haven’t seen the gun since it was last in frame—we “need” a shot of her *noticing* the gun, making the decision, going for it.

In a book you just *remember* the gun was there, because he put it down half a page ago and all you’ve done in the interim is read twelve lines of text—vs. a film where you’re spending a lot of circuitry watching Bogart and Gladys George, reading their body language, etc.

If you’ve grown up with cinema grammar, you internalize that rhythm, so you know: ok, what we need here is for her to *see* the gun. We need a shot of it. Because the gun doesn’t exist unless she sees it. When in prose, the gun can just… exist. […]

And also said:

I’m personally so tired of books that doesn’t care about the effects you can create WITH BOOKS, the way an even competently-made tv series cares about the effects you can create with a camera. Books that read like screenplays for the movie the author hopes someone will make […] sometimes I want to just vanish into the dream, into the movie in my mind, I get it… but even there, when I do, the vanishing comes from a mastery of prose technique. (Evocation of camera image is also prose technique!)

When I wrote about flashbacks, I said it could be heavy-handed to use words like ‘remember’ or ‘reminded’. Instead of ‘the Old Spice reminded him of his grandfather’, ‘Old Spice had been his grandfather’s brand. He’d been standing on tiptoes to see[…]’. See how that takes advantage of an immersive access to somebody’s mind, which isn’t possible through a camera perspective?

The point here is to be conscious of how we’re engaging with our own work in progress. If we’re audio/visualising, how much of that is actually on the page? And are we losing sight of the other senses and perspectives which the written – not visual – make possible for us to use?

Dialogue, Lovecraft, Ellipses Out of Place

Lovecraftian image
Source: https://bit.ly/2UbtbS4

Stephen King’s On Writing mentions that H.P. Lovecraft ‘was a genius when it came to tales of the macabre, but a terrible dialogue writer.’ King quotes a passage from ‘The Colour Out of Space’:

Nothin’… nothin’… the colour… it burns… cold an’ wet… but it burns… it lived in the well… I seen it… a kind o’ smoke… jest like the flowers last spring […] it come from some place whar things ain’t as they is here… one o’ them professors said so…

King says, ‘And so on and so forth, in carefully constructed elliptical bursts of information,’ concluding Lovecraft wrote like this because he was a weird bigoted loner.

It’s not as painful a line as that Lovecraft, but I remembered a bit of my critique of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon’s prologue:

“Stop whoever is coming… or die.”

Ellipses in dialogue can be effective for showing a speaker trailing off or hesitant, or, as attempted here, giving the listener pause to register a threat. Pauses can be used to give the listener/reader time to embellish a vague hint for themselves. (‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if…’)

But the threat has to actually be threatening. I can’t imagine someone speaking this edgelord line. A pause doesn’t automatically add badass power.

I suspect this sort of forced drama is something a lot of beginner writers do. I remember using ellipses like that myself.

Possibly one reason why is the influence of film and TV. I can imagine a younger me writing a line like ‘Stop whoever is coming… or die,’ and picturing how it would work on camera. It’s still never a brilliant line (I mean, come on) but with a suitable soundtrack, camera work, good acting, scenery, it might end up forgivable.

So how can we add punch to dialogue without Lovecraftian Ellipses Out of Place?

A solid point for a lot of things in writing is Rachel Walton’s reminder to read out loud. If it’s unnatural to speak or makes you picture a 1960’s Batman villain, reconsider!

Pauses have their place, but use them consciously. Do they produce a natural rhythm that matches the tone and content of the dialogue, or would another tactic be more effective?

Perhaps Lovecraft’s dialogue above would’ve worked better as a manic ramble of run-on sentences. Perhaps the character would keep roaming off topic, or drift into a silent thousand-yard stare, and need to be re-prompted. There are many ways to use structure and interaction with other speakers. Consider this wild monologue.

And then there’s all the stuff around the dialogue. If you’re picturing a gesture that makes the ellipses work perfectly, other people won’t see that – lighting the cigarette, grabbing the lapel, gesturing to the henchman, etc – unless you prompt them to.

Passengers – Viewpoint and Structure

[Spoilers]

In the film Passengers, Chris Pratt is accidentally woken from hibernation early into a long space voyage and deliberately wakes Jennifer Lawrence so he won’t be alone. It’s not bad, but it struggles with a predictable arc, and its unresolved tension between ‘creepy guy thriller’ and ‘sci-fi romance’.

I stumbled on this video about it, which makes a good argument Passengers would be better from Lawrence’s perspective.

With the plot shifted to allow the viewer to take a more active role picking up on clues, and be surprised as the reveals come with increasing tension, the arc would be more engaging. With a change in viewpoint character and suitable adjustments to the closing act, the story could begin as a mysterious sci-fi romance with hints of something untoward and develop a darker tone – rather than its confused mish-mash.

From all this, I think writers can draw some helpful questions to ask themselves:

  • Is this being told from the right viewpoint?
  • How is the chosen viewpoint shaping audience sympathy, and does this support or conflict with the themes?
  • Is the plot structure predictable?
  • Does the plot structure encourage the audience to passively take in the story, or to actively pick up on hints and form interpretations? (Though, too much of the latter can also be frustrating.)
  • Would there be a benefit to revealing certain things later?

Book Reviews (15)

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Steering the Craft – Ursula Le Guin

‘I want to say up front, it is not a book for beginners. It’s meant for people who have already worked hard at their writing.’

The contents page might suggest this is rather dry and technical – a chapter on sentence length and syntax; another on adjectives and adverbs. But Le Guin writes with clarity, enthusiasm, and dry humour, illustrating points with extracts from varied works and providing plenty of exercises to work with.

We’ve all seen Adverb DiscourseTM, but Le Guin’s statement is better expressed than most: ‘When the quality that the adverb indicates can be put in the verb itself (they ran quickly = they raced) or the quality the adjective indicates can be put in the noun itself (a growling voice = a growl), the prose will be cleaner, more intense, more vivid.’

I wrote a post about her take on conflict.

And look how big-brain this is: ‘I see the big difference between the past and present tenses not as immediacy but as complexity and size of field. […] Use of the past tense(s) allows continual referring back and forth in time and space.’

Moby Dick – Herman Melville

Ugh. I gave up just under halfway through.

There was a promising start – glimmers of humour and gorgeous, thoughtful passages suggested smooth sailing ahead. Throughout what I read, there were sections that showed exactly why this might be considered a great classic. These kept me going as long as I did. But there’s just far too much bloat.

Melville loves his semi-colons. Potential neat ideas are stretched and dragged out to hundreds of obsessively expanded words, action is drained of urgency, and long nautical digressions lead nowhere.

With some ruthless editing the early promise would pay off well. As it is, it’s a tiring slog.

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

h e l l  y e s

Going from Moby Dick to this is like going from Ambien to crack. Alex Stern, the only survivor and ex-suspect of a bloody crime, is granted a Yale scholarship despite her lacking education due to a traumatic past of truancy and addiction. But she is tasked with monitoring the activities of Yale’s secret societies – users of dark ritual magic for the elite – as a murder on campus threatens to unravel a tenuous balance.

The characters are fantastic: dark, sassy Alex (‘you want seconds?’ Lmao!); dandyish Darlington; scholarly Dawes… The magic and societies are varied, gritty, and lavish, with the power and its dynamics explored to its daunting implications, the ritual scenes written with cinematic flair. The action drives a twisted, breakneck plot.

There’s some intense stuff, so be warned if that’s not for you. Otherwise, highly recommended.

Rivers of London – Ben Aaronovitch

This is a lot of fun. Peter Grant, probationary constable, gets a witness statement to a murder from a ghost. From there the case spirals through bizarre violent incidents across London, while a feud brews between the spirits of the Thames and their nymphs from London’s lost rivers, and Grant studies magic under wizard Inspector Nightingale.

The sense of setting is powerful, the magic lessons based on Newton’s systematic development of the field are enjoyable, the diverse cast’s dialogue vivid.

Some sentences felt a little awkward, some small points a bit off – I thought Grant’s scientific, experimental mind didn’t match with C grades. Small quibbles aside, it’s a good blend of adult Harry Potter and CSI with an imaginative, compelling view of London, magic, and crime.

Stories Aren’t All Conflict

arm wrestle

It’s common to hear conflict emphasised as a core element in engaging stories. It’s hard to argue that it isn’t important, but the way it’s focused on sometimes doesn’t sit right with me.

There can be a tendency to treat action and drama as the key ways to be engaging, an insistence on getting right into an in media res fight or argument that misses how gripping and immersive other ways of starting a story can be, a rush for speed when taking some time to let it all stew isn’t always wrong.

How about a really good character intro, creepy implications that suggest more to come, an inviting bizarre new world? None of that needs immediate conflict.

Here’s a different perspective, from Ursula Le Guin in Steering the Craft.

Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing.

Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.

Of course, this might not be helpful to writers who go too far into a sedate stroll around their world. A renewed eye on conflict is a good counter to interminable exposition and small talk. But Le Guin is right to challenge a single-minded focus on conflict.

Writing Autopsy – Eragon’s Prologue

I really enjoyed Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle growing up. But it has its flaws – especially the first one, Eragon. The series is fun when you don’t obsessively nitpick, and I couldn’t have done better when I was 15. But looking back, there’s a lot to learn about writing from dissecting some mistakes.

So, here are a few lessons from Eragon’s prologue (read here).

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Prologue: Shade of Fear

I’m not sure this needs to be a prologue, but I am sure that if you’re naming your chapters you don’t want them sounding like something from My Immortal.

Wind howled through the night, carrying a scent that would change the world.

A scent? This is a strange emphasis. It’s not this encounter that changes the world, something a character does, but a smell on the wind. Careful where you suggest agency and significance.

A tall Shade lifted his head and sniffed the air. He looked human except for his crimson hair and maroon eyes.

I err on the side of simple physical description myself, but introduce a monster with more than ‘tall’ and hair and eye colour.

He blinked in surprise. The message had been correct […]
hissed in anger […]
Excited, he lifted a thin lip in a snarl. […]
howled in rage and stalked forward, flinging his sword at a tree.

When showing emotions, it shouldn’t be necessary to also tell them. At least, what’s being told and shown shouldn’t conflict. Why is it surprising that the message was correct? People don’t snarl with excitement. Howling and throwing a sword indicates rage, but it also comes off more petulant than scary.

“Stop whoever is coming… or die.”

Ellipses in dialogue can be effective for showing a speaker trailing off or hesitant, or, as attempted here, giving the listener pause to register a threat. Pauses can be used to give the listener/reader time to embellish a vague hint for themselves. (‘Wouldn’t it be a shame if…’)

But the threat has to actually be threatening. I can’t imagine someone speaking this edgelord line. A pause doesn’t automatically add badass power.

It was too dark for any human to see, but for him the faint moonlight was like sunshine streaming between the trees; every detail was clear and sharp to his searching gaze. […]

The Urgals could not see as well as the Shade; they groped like blind beggars

The simile is nice, but what details does he see? The bit with the Urgals is another case of ‘telling, then showing what was just told’. Don’t bog down good action with unnecessary explanation, or imply a description without giving one.

“Get ready,” he whispered, his whole body vibrating.

vibrating cat

Uh, choose verbs carefully.

Ahead of them, the Shade heard a clink as something hard struck a loose stone. Faint smudges emerged from the darkness and came down the trail.

This would be fine, but it’s inconsistent with the mentioned night-vision. Keep track of and visualise details – imagining what you would see doesn’t work if you’ve altered the character’s senses.

Three white horses with riders cantered toward the ambush, their heads held high and proud, their coats

Sentence structure makes it initially ambiguous whose heads are meant. Rephrase sentences so potentially conflicting subjects are distinct.

The Shade jumped out from behind the tree, raised his right hand, and shouted, “Garjzla!”

A red bolt flashed from his palm toward the elven lady

‘Alohamora’ and ‘wingardium leviosa’ sound right in a way ‘garjzla’ just doesn’t (but other words in these books do). Say made-up words aloud to test how they work. Reported speech is another option – ‘shouted a barbarous word’.

As the Urgals rushed to the slain elves, the Shade screamed, “After her! She is the one I want!”

That ‘as’ slows us down. It suggests the rushing takes time, and leads us to process the rushing and the screaming separately when they should be a simultaneous, rapid, chaotic moment. How about, ‘The Urgals rushed to the slain elves, the Shade screaming’?

She took a step toward them, then cursed her enemies and bounded into the forest.

Again, verb choice. Rabbits bound.

While the Urgals crashed through the trees, the Shade climbed a piece of granite that jutted above them. From his perch he could see all of the surrounding forest.

Where was this granite when the setting was introduced, and why wasn’t he hidden watching from here earlier? It feels like Paolini added this in at this point writing the scene, but didn’t account for it being there from the start.

When you introduce something, go back later remembering it’s there and see what should change.

Grimly he burned one section after another until there was a ring of fire, a half-league across, around the ambush site. The flames looked like a molten crown resting on the forest.

A good idea with more nice imagery. The simile might do better as a metaphor integrated into the earlier sentence, though: ‘ a ring of fire a half-league across around the ambush site, a molten crown resting on the forest.’

The description’s good, but this is still an action scene. ‘Looked like’ puts a filter between us and the scene. Sense-verbs like ‘looked’ or ‘heard’ are an easy way to introduce sights and sounds, but they can also limit immediacy.

Grimly he burned […]
The Shade examined the ground twenty feet below, then jumped and landed nimbly in front of her. […]
A flash of emerald light briefly illuminated

The jump is a neat touch. These adverbs don’t add much, though.

He’s Mr Evil, I don’t think he’s ever not grim, or would be made more grim by worrying about damaging forest habitats.

As for ‘nimbly’, I get the point, but what if he ‘landed in a fighting stance’, or ‘with sword ready’, or something more showy than telly? ‘Nimbly’ doesn’t paint a detailed picture, it just means he hasn’t twisted an ankle.

Flashes are inherently brief.

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It’s honestly not that bad – some people seem weirdly furious about Eragon, whatever, nobody’s forcing you to read it. However, there are definitely issues in this prologue that we can learn to avoid in our own writing.

Things to check on:

  • 3edgy5me
  • Unnecessary telling, weak showing.
  • Misleading prominence and agency.
  • Sentence structure, clear subject.
  • Does it work spoken aloud?
  • Verb choice.
  • Consistency.
  • Weak adverbs.
  • ‘The thing looked green’ vs ‘green thing’.
  • Fine detail of pacing and tense.

Subtle vs Obscure

frosted window

Here’s the interesting essay On Subtlety by Meghan O’Gieblyn. (h/t The Singing Lights)

I wanted to write stories that were like the stories I loved: oblique in their approach, buttressed by themes that revealed themselves upon multiple readings. But in workshops, my classmates were vocal about the many problems lurking in my stories: the character’s motivation was not clear; the backstory should be addressed, not alluded to; the conclusion was too cryptic. For a while, I dismissed this as obtuseness. People wanted things spelled out. They weren’t reading closely. But there comes a point when a reproach is repeated so often it become impossible to dismiss. […]

I suppose I’ve been trying to suggest that subtlety is always a sign of mystery, and that our attitude toward the former is roughly commensurate to our tolerance for the latter. I have come to regard it as something of a dark art, a force of nature that can be summoned but never fully harnessed, and can backfire at the slightest misstep. Anyone can pick up a bullhorn and make her intent clear to all, but to attempt something subtle is to step blindfolded into the unknown.

A writing teacher in a class I attended responded to a workshop story by saying something like: ‘It’s interesting to be subtle about which character is right, the symbols, the themes. Let people discuss what they think it means. But you have to be clear about what happened.’

That stuck in my head as a decent rule of thumb (with standard proviso). Readers debating whether Bob or Alice or neither were right in what they did sounds like a better result for a writer than readers scratching their heads trying to figure out what they did.

A really subtle story to have a look at is Hemingway’s Hills Like White Elephants. It gives you very little overt information to go on – and it seems to be an exception to the rule of thumb, because the reader is like someone listening in, trying to figure out what the characters are talking about. In this case ‘what is happening?’ is an intriguing mystery, rather than an obstacle to engaging with the story.

Subtlety can work really well. As I said before: ‘The big risk with trying to Say Something is that you bash the reader over the head with it. An overwrought attempt at theme can come across as the unholy pretentious spawn of a story and an essay.’ There can be a pleasure to uncovering the subtext.

The question is how to trust the reader enough without over-estimating how clear your intentions are in the text. If a few people don’t understand, maybe they missed something. If nobody understands, it’s silly to blame the audience.

Taking Artistic License

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I recently saw this video correcting fantasy misconceptions about medieval weapons, such as bows being suitable for weaker characters and archers being able to hold a fully drawn longbow for ages.

There’s a lot of useful information, and it does add realism to fantasy or historical fiction if an archer strains to hold a shot.

But how accurate does fiction have to be, and when is it okay to take artistic license?

Medical dramas often show defibrillators used to restart hearts, but in reality they’re used to resynchronise an irregular heartbeat, not start it from flat-line. The myth is so established, however, that it might be counterproductive for the reader’s experience to try to push back on it.

A quick defibrillator scene we all already understand, that gets right to the character drama, may be better than a more factual scene which takes attention away from the ‘will they make it!’ tension to make the reader/viewer process new medical knowledge. Showing CPR breaking ribs might also be inappropriate for tone.

And back to the medieval context, Jo Walton’s Tiffany Problem describes a tension between historical fact and public perception – Tiffany was a real medieval name, but writers can’t use it.

It’s a variant of Theophania. It appears in 12th century documents from Britain and France, and you cannot give it as a name to a character in a historical or fantasy setting because it looks too horribly modern.

Realism doesn’t work so well if the reader doesn’t see it as realistic. If you want or need to buck a common misconception in your writing, you need to be aware of how the reader could react. It might be necessary to find some way to help the new information go down.

If the protagonist is a medical student, it’s natural for them to learn what defibrillators are and aren’t really used for. This could be through exposition or a lecture scene, or through something more dramatic and less clunky. That could be a scene where a doctor tries to resuscitate someone, the student is shocked by how intense it actually is, and sees someone die for the first time.

In another Shadiversity video he explains why torches weren’t used for indoor lighting in the way we usually imagine. The reality could be shown without special fuss, since nobody would instinctively find rushlights or the real use of sconces ‘unrealistic’. Showing the soot under a torch as it is used could be a great bit of detail. There isn’t a big tension there between perception and reality. However, if a character must be named Tiffany for some reason, that will need a bit of explanation to be accepted.

Myths can be useful narrative devices, but I think there’s a risk of relying on ones that have become recognised tropes. The 10% myth has been used so much in sci-fi involving characters ‘getting access to 100% of their brains’ that it isn’t unique any more. When using a myth for a narrative device, it has to do more than allow the story to happen. What possibilities does it raise? How effective is it at suspending disbelief? How easy is it to understand?

Where there’s tension between reality and common beliefs, knowing when and how to draw from research or to take artistic license can be tricky. Realism and reality don’t always match, and what fits the textbook doesn’t always fit the needs of a scene.

From Story to Novel

typewriter

M.L. Davis has a great post on learning to write short stories from the perspective of someone more used to novels.

This post is about the other side of that. I’m more familiar with writing short stories (even like this tiny boye), and had to learn a few things before I managed my first novel.

Giving Characters Space

The main thing was finding the right approach to planning for me.

The first times I tried to write a novel, I got stuck around 9000 words. A big part of why was that I’d tried to plan in detail, as many sources tell you to do. It held me back from letting the characters follow their own internal logic – they were too bland, too deterministic. Eventually I didn’t know how to drag them from one chapter to another, and the whole thing derailed.

Novels are big. Readers will be hanging out with the characters for a much longer time, and plots become more multilayered and sprawling.

Different approaches to planning work for different people. You need to find your own balance, giving yourself enough structure to keep things on track while also giving the characters space to develop and use their own initiative.

Ultimately, the plot is what the characters do. When you’re working with words by the tens of thousands, and with many more plot points than in a short story, it will become more glaringly cruddy if the characters are shallow puppets with the plot imposed on them. And more gripping if characters take control for themselves.

Life Doesn’t Have Chapters

This is another shift in mindset that helped me. In early novel attempts, my chapters were too strictly episodic. One plot sequence happened, then jolt into this one, jolt to the next, and so on, each a bit too compartmentalized. They didn’t connect smoothly.

Chapters and scenes are very important for the writer and readers. A satisfying story will have its rises and falls, building tension and resolutions, driving action and reflection in well-paced balance. After a battle scene it may be good to have a steadier chapter with more reflection, dealing with the aftermath. So, as writers, we start on a new chapter with that in the back of our minds.

As far as the characters are concerned, their life is a continuous stream. Not a set of episodes. They, the ones doing the plot, continue acting in line with their motives just as before. Unless this is metafiction, none of them see Chapter 14 flash in the sky when the other side surrenders. They only know the battle is won, they’re knackered, and people are dead and injured – and act accordingly.

Deeper Worldbuilding

As Coffee Stars Books said:

I like to start with worldbuilding before character and plot because I think it influences both of those things a lot. I tend to find that my plot is very character driven, and in turn my characters are formed from their own experiences and upbringing and the world around them.

Particularly for something like fantasy, you need to know more about the setting, culture, and magic and technology. If you add magic to a world, that should have logical impacts throughout society, down to shaping the lives of your characters. Writing a novel gives you a chance to get into much more detail with all these things than a shorter form allows. It’ll be fun!

Of course, excess exposition will be one thing to edit out later on – it’s okay to know more than you include.

One Step at a Time

A novel is a lot of words. A number like ‘90,000’ can be disconcerting. Set a non-scary target – mine was 500 words – and try to do that every day. If you can write 500 words, you can keep on doing that until it all adds up.

Some days will be easy, in which case it’s fine to keep going past the target. Others will be hard, in which case embrace the trash – bad writing is what editing’s for.

If a whole section is a struggle, keep at it. Forget about phrasing everything nicely, and be open to the characters veering off your plan. At some point you will know what’s going on again, and any tricky editing that needs doing is future-you’s problem.

Whenever you finish a day’s write, a chapter, a section, you’re achieving something. The end goal is the sum of all those steps along the way, so take heart in your progress.

An Eye For Fictional Accuracy

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Oran’s critical review of Jim Murphy’s Christadora got me thinking about the type of accuracy that works in details in fiction.

In trying to place things in a specific sense of place and time, for example, he tells you things you don’t need: “Mateo parked his car 100 metres away” as opposed to “Mateo parked his car nearby”. If you wanted an example of accuracy and not specificity “Mateo parked his car a few streets away”. It’s a kind of detail I would naturally track which is why the specificity of 100 metres is weird. This might seem innocuous but when the book has these details I don’t need, I am pulled out of the story. And it happens quite a bit. Here is another example: POV character is coming home from work with pizza and she finds out her kid is in hospital because they were bitten by a dog. This is verbatim what she does:

“… put her pizzas down on a handsome, high-backed wooden bench in the lobby, pulled out her cell phone …”

This is exactly the kind of information I don’t want. Like I want to know what happened to the kid. She can put the pizzas down, sure, but with the detail she seems unpanicked, unhurried, wanting to gently place her delicious steaming pizzas on this handsome, high-backed wooden bench before at last pulling her mobile out and dialling her partner.

Murphy has a journalist’s background. He has a well-honed eye for accurate details, but what works in journalism isn’t what works in fiction.

The aim for details in fiction isn’t to be factual. It’s to be true to life.

Details should be chosen for particular interest, such as narrative relevance or significance to character. If a detail is noted in fiction it’s marked out as something with implications – which is why it’s distracting to specify the exact distance of the car, and why describing the bench in detail right there suggests the character isn’t that worried about her kid. The reader’s mind is being pointed in an irrelevant direction.

It might be factual for the car to be 100m away or the bench to be high-backed. But in the story, this use of detail isn’t true to life. Good description is active, it bounces off everything else. It’s not just there, it does something: implying importance, imbuing subtext, portraying character, reinforcing points of the setting or themes. An unnecessary or ham-fisted detail cuts against the grain of the scene, distracting readers.

As far as a realistic character is concerned, the car is ‘nearby’ and the pizzas are ‘thrown on a bench as she pulls out her phone, hands shaking’. Now, if Mateo were parking his car for a heist or assassination, having a specific distance planned might work. And if the character with the pizzas was supposed to be cold or even abusive, implying a sedate response to their kid being in hospital could be powerful, striking a disturbing note.

Does this specific detail matter? Would it change something if this were different? What does it imply? Does it fit the tone, the character, the scene? What will the reader want to know right now?