This morning I happened to glance over at my husband’s soap sitting in front of the shampoo bottle (too long to explain why we each have our own soaps, suffice it to say we do). The shampoo, one from the Aussie family, is in a deep purple bottle with a sky blue swath across the front. Steven’s soap of the moment is the exact same shade of blue. The two complement each other beautifully. A rare moment of color-matching in the shower.
Yet if I were to put that into a story, readers would slam the book shut (or close the file on their ereader) saying, “No one color-coordinates their shampoo and soap. That’s just stupid.”
I’ll leave the judgment aside, but the sentiment is honest. We’ve all read books that explain every little detail to the point where the story is bogged down and the characters forgotten. Yet, isn’t that realism?
I would argue no. Think about your daily life. How much detail do you really notice? I don’t know about anyone else, but the cobwebs have to be pretty thick before I even realize they’re hanging from the corners. I can drive past the same house every day for three months before I realize it’s undergone a paint job.
So how much description do you really need to provide that sense of realism in your stories?
It all goes back to character. Sherlock Holmes notices an immense amount of detail, Watson doesn’t. How much would your characters notice?
The companion question to that is, why would they notice? If your character is anal retentive or OCD, they’re going to see the napkin holder’s been moved or that the salt shaker needs filling. Little details like this can very helpfully show character traits.
If, on the other hand, your character spends most of the time with his head somewhere else, his mind wandering or puzzling over a problem, he might not see the stool or would trip over the shoes he (or someone else) kicked off and left in the middle of the room. Again, a way to use detail to show character.
What does the matching shampoo bottle and soap say about my husband? I’d like to say its his painter’s eye coming to bear in small but pretty ways, but I know its an accident. Something that just happened. Are both legitimate character motivations? Absolutely. And if I were to include such a small detail in a story, it would be clear as to which motivation it was.
Go back through your current work in progress and look for those telling details. Examine the ones you’ve included: what are you telling your readers about your characters by including it? If it’s there primarily to set the scene, again, is it an important detail? One that will come into play later on?
I ask that last question because of a question I got one time during a table read of the first three pages of my (still unpublished) fantasy novel. Vivian Van Velde, a young adult fantasy author, was at my table and made the comment about the flower my protagonist stopped to examine. She said (and I paraphrase), “It must be important later on, for him to have taken the time to notice that particular flower.”
I just smiled and thanked her for her observation. In my head I’m thinking, “Drat. It’s just a flower. It has no significance whatsoever. I’d better re-write that!”
So be careful with reality. Over-describing it can lead the reader into false paths. A useful tool if you’re writing a mystery, but not so much if you want them to focus on your characters’ actions.
Rule of thumb: Give only the details that are important to the people who populate your books. If it’s something they’d notice or that would be important to them, include it. If it’s important to the plot or to understanding the world you’ve created, keep it.
Otherwise, think hard before allowing it to stand.