Beginning and novice writers fall prey to this clever little deceiver when they suddenly realize that they hadn’t included any details in a scene. They start popping them in without thinking about their placement or they rush back during a rewrite and drop them in like they are sprinkling in raindrops. These haphazard details smear across the page and take the characters hostage at knife point to completely stop the story. Here’s a scene I see way too often:
Mary jumped out of the car and ran into the house. The little two-story cottage style abode had a white picket fence surrounding it. The lawn had been cut two days ago, and already it showed signs of needing to be watered. Shelby barked at Mary as she unlocked the door with one of the many keys on her key ring. She had about 10 on the loop, but the house key was the only golden one. Inside, the hallway was dark, despite the bright day outside. She flipped on the light and rushed inside. The new carpet squished beneath her feet. The hallway still smelled of fresh paint. A breeze, as if a window had been left open, pressed against her warm skin. She noticed a coffee cup sitting on the low table in the middle of the living room. With a shock, she noticed someone was in there, sitting casually in the recliner. She entered the room. The ornate room had red carpet that hadn’t yet been replaced. As a child, her grandmother had never let her play in the room and had hardly used it herself, so the carpet was hardly worn. All her grandmother’s nick-knacks remained on the fireplace hearth just in front of the mirror in which she could now see the reflection of the man sitting in the room. A lamp was on beside him, shining onto a book he’d pulled from the shelf beside the fireplace. He slammed it shut as Mary entered the room. The sound made her jump.
Okay, well, that’s a start. But there’s a lot that needs work. Let’s start at the top.
Mary first gets out of the car and runs into the house. Then, it’s like she backs up in reverse so we can see not only the house, but the white picket fence, the lawn, the dog, and the keys. Not only has that stopped the reader, but it’s made the reader go backwards too.
Remodeling the house might be important, especially in light of the room that Grandmother left pretty much untouched — it was a show room, one reserved for company and special occasions and otherwise not used. I got that from writing this. Did you get that sense from reading it? Possibly not. So there were thoughts of the author that the reader might not get.
Then, we have the stranger in the room. Did you notice how even after she’d realized that someone was in the house she still reflected on the carpet, the nick-knacks, and the lamp without having a reaction to him. In fact, Mary doesn’t react at all until he slams the book closed. Let me ask you: if you came home to discover a stranger in your house, would you think about these things or would you be dialing 9-1-1 already? Yeah, let’s not make our characters do things we ourselves wouldn’t do (unless there is a very good reason for it, like she knows the cops are right behind her already).
Do you also see how the details of the story are listed like facts? Starting with the keys, in describing that she has 10 of them on her ring, right on the lamp. The story has pretty much stopped in this time, except for her turning and realizing that someone is in the house — that’s the only action. All the rest are details that have stopped the story.
So, now let’s fix this:
Mary pulled the car to the curb outside of her two-story cottage style house. She pushed her way through the gate of the white picket fence, reaching down quickly to pet Shelby as he barked a greeting to her. Mary riffled through the multiple keys on the ring for the golden house key and unlocked the door. Through the darkness of the hallway, the scent of fresh paint greeted her. She flipped the light and as she turned, she noticed a coffee cup sitting on the low table in the living room. A soft breeze drifted across her face as if someone had opened a window. Her heartbeat quickened as she stepped toward the room. The new carpeting squished beneath her shoes, dampening the sound of her movement. As she drew closer, she saw a black hole on the shelf where a book had been removed from the others. She scanned quickly to see if anything else in the room had been disturbed. All of her grandmother’s nick-knacks were lined up perfectly across the fireplace mantle. She looked up into the mirror above the fireplace which reflected the rest of the room and saw him. The stranger’s eyes locked with hers. He sat in the recliner, the book in his hands. He slammed it shut, making Mary jump, as he made to stand.
First we see Mary making her way from the car to the house. We show the reader the house from the vantage point of the car and move her through the fence and into the yard. Gone now is the state of the grass — it’s not important to the scene. The dog stays, because the dog is a state of normalcy — she’s expecting to see the dog and since the dog isn’t freaking out about someone being inside the house, the reader doesn’t expect it and must wonder how someone got passed the dog. This creates suspense.
Also notice in the first example how things are separated from the rest of the story: hallway was dark, carpet squished, fresh paint smelled, etc. All these things are independent sentences on their own. But in the second example, I’ve actually blended these things into the scene. They are no longer facts being told, but have a reason for being in the story: the carpet dampens the sound of her walking, the hallway is dark to bring on a sense of foreboding, the odor of the paint greets her in another warm gesture to make her feel safe in opposition to the dark hallway. Even the items in the room are no longer facts, but clues as she discovers the stranger in her house.
I did take out the whole part about the house being her grandmother’s. It probably is important, but not here. What’s important here is Mary returning home to find a stranger.
Any time you have details in your story that are standing alone like facts being shouted from a textbook, find a way to blend them into your story. If you don’t, they stop the story.
If you’d like another example of this, check out my chapter on narrative in The Write Edit.
Until next time, happy writing.