Thursday, June 24, 2010

It's All in the Details

Every once in a while, I'll pick up a book that has a really interesting blurb on the back, take it home and start reading it, only to discover that within 10 pages, I want to hurl the thing across the room and rant at whoever will listen (and those who aren't) about the horrors of bad writing.

Fortunately, I know a great used book store where I can take the offending novel and get credit for later purchases.

The offender in this case is a YA novel. I like reading YA. It's fast, easy, and usually character driven with a nice splash of romance and a healthy dose of action. Because it's so fast (in this case this also means short. YA books tend to be in the 60,000 word range) the author has to compact things. Like writing a short story, every sentence needs to do something. Impart emotion, scenery, motion, plot, dialogue, convey underlying tension, and a dozen other things.

It's true what they say. It's all in the details.

In the course of my writing carrier, I've seen a lot of "show, don't tell." You read enough, you begin to see the difference.

Showing: The man stopped, the bulk of his shoulders filling the doorway. His eyes were deep set, hidden in the shadow of his overhanging brow, and when he spoke, the small hairs rose on the back of my neck.

Telling: The man in the doorway was threatening.

Okay, maybe not the best example, but you see where I'm going with this, right? A reader doesn't need to be told the man is threatening. It's all conveyed through the details. He's a big guy, right? Big people tend to be more threatening than small people (which makes showing small people as threatening without telling a fun challenge). Eyes are the windows to a person's soul, and throwing them into shadow hides a great deal from the protagonist. You know the protagonist feels something about the big guy in the doorway, especially when he speaks. And it's certainly not a warm fuzzy feeling.

I've read a lot of masterful YA. I've also ready my fair share where the author beats the readers over the head with details. They'll set up the emotions and tensions in a seen, and then ruin with a line like in the example.

Please, don't do this. Kids are not stupid. Teenagers don't want to be treated like dumb kids by people older than them. You don't need to dumb YA down because the target audience is younger. The first novel I read was Terry Brooks's The Sword of Shanara. It's an 800+ page monstrosity of a book, it took me three months to read it (the first time), and except for some words I had to look up, I understood it. Maybe there were some subtle details I didn't see, or fully understand, but I followed the main story, and I didn't need to have things pointed out to me with yard stick.

Think of Garfield. Or go watch Disney movies. They have a masterful blend of subtle adult humor mixed in with the story. Kids are innocent enough not to catch those subtle hints, and if they do catch them, it's because they're old enough to enjoy them.

Details are so important, and it's hard to find balance between too little, too much, and just enough. Don't make it harder on yourself (and your readers) by clubbing us over the head with things we've already picked up on by the wonderful subtleties in the writing.

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