Dear Meg and Allyson,
How many times have you heard an editor or writing teacher say that every detail in a novel counts? That every scene, action, description, sentence, word must contribute in some way, whether advancing the plot, deepening character, or establishing setting?
I’ve attended enough SCBWI meetings and writing conferences to have absorbed this writing edict, and yet sometimes, when I hear it proclaimed, I think, “Really? Every word? Every description? What if something extraneous slips through?”
Well, I had the opportunity this last month to compare a book where every detail matters to a book where some scenes seem, well, unnecessary.
Let’s start with the latter. I won’t name names. Suffice it to say that I picked up the latest mystery novel of a well-known author who has made a career writing fiction and non-fiction all set in a particular place, which I was planning to visit on vacation.
Now, part of the pleasure of this author’s books is the vicarious thrill of reading about beautiful settings, fabulous meals, and witty conversations, but I found myself wondering the purpose some of these scenes served. Why was the author spending so much time describing the gourmet five-course meal the protagonist ate alone during a layover? Would some detail show up later in the book? Would the character return to the restaurant later? Would he discover a clue there to help solve the crime? Alas, the answer was no. The restaurant scene had no function other than showing the character indulging in a good meal. The story would have functioned just as well without it.
I compare this to our July book, Karen Cushman’s Alchemy and Meggy Swann, where every detail seems to matter. Take, for example, the ballad sellers that appear on the streets of Elizabethan London. The first one appears on page 27:
“Come and buy,” a ballad seller called, “a new ballad of Robin Hood.”
This line is embedded within a long series of paragraphs describing Meggy’s first walk in London.
A ballad seller appears again on page 44.
“Come and buy a ballad newly made,” a passing balled seller called. “Mayhap ‘The Ballad of Good Wives’ or ‘The Lover and the Bird.’”
This time, the ballad seller is more than just one of many people on the busy street. The way he carries his papers in a backpack gives Meggy an idea about how to carry her goose, Louise, while also grasping her walking sticks.
Another ballad seller appears on page 74, and at this point, I’m beginning to think, “There were a lot of ballad sellers in London!” Soon, Meggy meets a ballad printer while on an errand for her father. And then Meggy runs into yet another ballad seller while standing outside the baron’s gate on page 130.
What a pleasant surprise (and yet not wholly unexpected) to learn, then, that the solution to Meggy’s problem relates to selling ballads! The way Cushman integrates details about ballad selling and printing, as well as Meggy’s skills with singing and language, make the climax of this story satisfying. The novel feels unified, a tightly woven tapestry where every strand counts.
Let me just conclude by saying that the ballad seller is not the only seemingly small detail that grows in importance in Alchemy and Meggy Swann. Look back at the book to references to the heads on the Tower Bridge and the issue about players needing noble patronage.
StorySleuths Tip #88: Make sure every detail matters. Look for ways to introduce important details early in the story and then re-introduce them throughout the book to create a unified effect.