I’m learning a particular style of writing. I’m not saying that it’s the only style or even the best style, but it’s what I’m focused on at the moment. It does seem to be the “in” thing as far as modern writing goes.
This style says that the following opening is horrid:
Joe lives in Dallas. In the year the story takes place, 2012, he’s 22 and working at an entry level position as a bank teller. With a degree in economics from LSU, he expected more from life. He’s frustrated with his low pay, menial job and his lack of a love life. His hair is cut short to conform to his employer’s dress code but spiked to try to give him some degree of individuality. The length still riles him every time he looks in the mirror. Even his car annoys him – a 1996 Ford Mustang with two dents and holes in the upholstery.
The main problem with the passage above is that I’m trying to tell the reader everything they need to know about the character up front instead of developing him slowly. A secondary concern is that I’m revealing details that may not be relevant to the story. For example, does the reader need to know that he went to LSU?
In the style of writing that I’m learning, a setting detail should be included only if it does one of the following:
- Sets the scene, but only a thumbnail sketch – Think of a play. A single cardboard tree stands for an entire forest. A table with two chairs set with plates indicates a dining room. Add a menu, and it’s a restaurant. You can be a little more detailed with the written word but not much. Give the reader only enough information to create a picture in their mind.
- Set emotional context – We’re viewing only the things that the character sees. If he’s looking at roses and admiring their beauty, that says one thing about his emotional state. If he sees leaves decaying on the ground, it says another.
- Provides some important plot purpose – If the character is going to stab someone in chapter 2, you need to make sure that, at some prior point, he has access to a knife.
Take Joe. He looks in the refrigerator and sees:
- Perhaps a bottle of Abita Beer – Since this is a, presumably, small regional brand, this helps set the scene.
- Perhaps a carton of milk – This can remind him of his dead father who used to guzzle milk straight from the jug, much to his mother’s annoyance. It’s a fond memory of happy times but saddening due to the loss.
- Perhaps a bottle of juice – Later Joe is going to drink that juice not knowing that his roommate has poisoned it.
Similar to setting, I’m going to develop my character through his actions, but I’m only going to show you those things that have some bearing on plot. Perhaps Joe has a complicated love/hate relationship with his mother. Since the plot revolves around Joe’s poisoning by his roommate, maybe that relationship with his mom has no place in my story (unless the roommate’s motivation for attempted murder is driven by his annoyance by the telephone fights to which he’s constantly subjected.)
The point is this:
I am only going to reveal details that directly impact the story.
This constraint gives me an important advantage; it allows me to keep my story tight and engaging. There’s no getting bogged down with unimportant details. There is no chasing of rabbits. It does, however, lead to an important caveat.
This method only works if the reader allows me to shape my world as I go.
This is the first line in Power of the Mages:
The bottle slipped through Xan’s fingers.
My expectation of the reader is that a void exists in his mind when he opens my book. After reading that first line, he fills that void with a figure and a bottle. Perhaps the figure is humanoid or perhaps not. The bottle could look like a soda bottle or a whisky bottle. The only thing firm is that the figure has some indeterminate amount of fingers.
Later I give more details:
At seventeen, young for a journeyman apothecary, he strove for perfection, to be precise in his movements.
Now the reader knows the figure is a male, young, and probably human. If the reader, for whatever reason, had pictured Xan to be old with a wrinkled face, I expect the reader to replace the image with that of a young man.
The reader’s responsibility is to fill in his mental picture with dashed lines for the details I have not yet given. When I write something specifically showing that detail, he has to erase the dashed lines and replace them with the solid ones I’ve shown.
My responsibility as the author is to keep the solid lines consistent and the reasonable. If I show Xan with curly hair and later show it to be straight with no explanation in between, the reader has every right to throw the book away. Similarly, I must keep the details within the realm of the possible. If Xan has three-foot long hair and gravity in all other ways works normally, I can’t have his hair stand straight up without some explanation.