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Deep writing vs. too many details

1 June, 2010

When I started high school,  I was excited. Finally I would learn all the deep philosophical ‘stuff’ needed in life. I had my driver’s licence so I was grown-up—right? And I was more than ready for this kind of learning, especially with regard to my favourite subject, English.

Big disappointment. In my Year 10 English class, we took turns reading novels and stories out loud. When my turn came, I was never at the right place in the book because I always  raced ahead on my own to see what was happening next. The teacher also gave quizzes about facts:  the who, what, where, when of a story—but never the why.

When we were reading George Eliot’s novel, Silas Marner, we had this question on the quiz:  ‘Where did Silas Marner hide his gold?’ Although I could not remember the exact hiding place, the story had grabbed my imagination with its themes of the greeds that trap people and the reckonings they suffer as a result.  Such life lessons were what I had imagined would be explored in a high school literature class.

This ‘just the facts’ approach can be detrimental to writers as well. If they follow this approach too much, they keep their readers stuck on the story’s surface. Writers may think they’re developing their story because they are including so much action, moving their characters here and there and making them do this and that. But if they never venture below all this activity,  into their story’s depths,  they short-change those readers who are looking for something more than action.

I recently read a story in which the main character, a waitress, was weighing up whether to attend her high school reunion. The story was filled with realistic detail, such as how the waitress cleaned up a spilled drink and talked to the cook. The details rang true. It seemed likely that the writer had spent time in cafes,  watching, listening and taking notes. Maybe like me, the writer had even done a stint working in a restaurant.

It was a surprise to discover halfway through the story that I was feeling let down.  Despite all the realistic detail, the story was not providing enough about the waitress’ motivations and concerns. She was worried,  but because I did not discover the reasons why,  I could not care.

Describing characters is important. But do not get so wrapped up in arranging surface details that you leave your characters’ psychological depths unplumbed. Dive below the surface details to explore the riches lying underneath. Think fully about their motivations, fears, hopes, concerns, hates, worries. Work to bring up memorable treasures for readers by probing the why, not just the who-what-when-where of their lives.

This probing does not mean unloading a characters’  psychology on readers  in one ungainly lump: Scrabbling under his loom, Silas Marner hides his gold because of his deep distrust of others and his reaction to defeats in his life.  Readers like exploring, and writers who tell too much too soon wreck this pleasure.

Writers make it easier for a reader to believe in a story when they include something about their characters’ deep psychology. It is often subtle, a hint at what is sitting underneath and driving the story’s action. When readers choose to stay in a story’s world until the end, they often do so because the writer has made them confident that they will find the story deeply satisfying and even memorable. Some stories we remember years later because of the bond we forged with a character as we read.

Explore below the surface facts of your characters. You may be surprised at what emerges from the deep.

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