Friday, February 3, 2012

Did You Know...

By Russel D McLean (who is a little grumpy today)

I have a plea for writers. Especially writers of procedural based crime and those action thrillers that feature military personel.

The plea is simple:

Keep. Your. Research. Away. From. My. Narrative.

Although Elmore Leonard will claim that his ten rules of writing were written on the fly for a writing con appearance, there is one that speaks to me.

Leave out the parts the readers tend to skip.

I read a book recently that’s been getting a lot of plaudits about its pacing and its character and its “state of the nation” challenging assumptions. And all I could do through the whole book (all 500 plus pages) was yell, “Get the bloody hell on with it!” Because there was some genuinely good writing in there and yet the author had to explain police procedure in brain crushing detail. To the point where I felt I could fill out an evidence form without thinking twice.

Which is all well and good and some readers believe it adds realism (and weight for their money, as the higher word count means a heavier and bigger book) but it doesn’t. Because people don’t go through their life examining everything in such detail. And when we tell each other stories we don’t do it either (unless we’re bores).

There’s a lot you can skip. If you’re filling out an evidence form, please only go into any detail if you’re making a blunder or seeing something important. If you’re using a gun, then tell me how it feels to fire the bastard, not the make, history and serial number of the gun.

Leave out the parts that people skip.

Because I skipped a hell of a lot during that book. And it made no difference to the emotional outcome. In fact, it might have made care more if my eyes hadn’t start crossing at the next tedious walk through of how-to-examine-a-crime-scene101.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t research. You should have enough technical detail in there to keep the scenes feeling real and weighted. But too much detail is as much a crime as too little. And in an age where we’re no longer being paid by the word (for novels, at least) there is no excuse for this, other than to show off to the reader how “real” you are by shoving in all of that research.

Of course, what do I know? An editor I once worked with berated me because “people want to know all the technical details” of how an investigation worked. Which intrigued me because it’s the last thing I want to know. Okay, I want to believe in how the characters go from a to b to c, but its less important to me than experiencing the character’s emotions and empathising with the sensation of what they’re going through.

Give me the story.

The action.

The emotion.

Tell me about the people.

And let the procedure take care of itself.


Dana King said...

i try to provide enough so that someone who wants to play along with the hero has the means to do so. No more, and only as much explanation about how the evidence was obtained to keep people from wondering if I cheated.

It's only fair. That's as much as I want when I read.

Gigistar said...

Yep I'm with you on this one!
On the other hand, if I had to mention one example of an author stuffing technical details on the page but still managing to create a successful blend with the story, I think I'd say Lee Child in Killing Floor (first of the Jack Reacher series).
I was amazed at how much technical stuff was in there - on weapons, fighting techniques, even on the way US dollars are made, but not a second of boredom.
Any other positive example anyone?