March 6, 2016
Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing” offers the sage tip “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.” Wisdom indeed. The problem is that readers are people, and people remain stubbornly unwilling to agree on anything. Including which parts of books they tend to skip.
For example, Robert Jordan devoted copious verbiage to descriptions of apparel, detailing every dress down to every last ruffle, bodice, and pleat. One of the reasons I was able to finish the entire series — the other being sheer bullheadedness; I started the damned thing, I was going to finish it — is a willingness to skim. My eyes catch words such as “embroidered frock” and begin to bounce along the following words until a phrase indicates the story has moved on to something less mind-numbing.
But that is me. Other readers adore a deep-dive into that fine a level of granularity. And it isn’t necessarily a question of level of detail so much as what sort of detail. Some readers can’t abide “The Lord of the Rings” because of Tolkien’s painterly, loving description of the landscapes the characters pass through. This bores some readers to tears. Me, I love it. It conjures an immersive dimension I can lose myself in. It is part of what establishes the illusion of reality of the Tolkien’s secondary-world.
So what parts do people tend to skip? What should I leave out? A scene that doesn’t necessarily move the plot forward can still serve to develop the characters, or even allow a pause, or moment of comic relief. But some readers might skim past it, anxious to get on with it, see what happens next.
I suppose the trick is to have each scene accomplish more than one thing. Service the plot and reinforce a character trait. Lighten up the mood after a grim bit of business and drop in a piece of essential foreshadowing.
Simple, right? Sure.