Ansel Adams is one of my favorite artists. Each of his works is a glorious study in one still moment in time. It takes hours to digest the myriad details of his photographs. The play of light and shadow. The texture. The richness of color you know is there even though the picture is in black and white. Think of these photographs as the freeze frames in your story – a high point or low point that’s significant. But imagine sitting in a movie theatre for three hours studying that one static image. Now imagine reading about that same image for page after page in a book.
Switch to a different scene. The same movie theater but this time on the screen is the latest Mission Impossible. Frames move at lightning speed. Action happens. Details build upon the last and tower into a crescendo, only to fall and rebuild, each time just a bit higher and stronger. You’re on the edge of your seat, nails gouging the arms of your recliner. The hero sweats and you do the same right along with him. Tense. Nerves thrumming. Straight to the end of the movie when you can finally sigh and relax.
Which do you prefer?
Minutia is fine in a first draft of your novel, but it doesn’t belong in a finished product. Every detail, each emotion or description has to move the story along through its low points to its high points. Those details and emotions and descriptions have to grow your character from the book’s beginning to its conclusion. They have to introduce us to the world you’ve created with just enough to keep us interested but not so much that we already know how the story ends.
If your protag hates broccoli, we probably won’t care a whole lot, but if she hates riding in cars or if she’s afraid of three-piece business suits or won’t leave her house before noon every day, we need to know why, and the reasons have to be plausible in your protag’s world. The stakes to reach the goal have to be high. They have to be complicated by what she fears or what’s happened in the past to make her feel what she feels.
This is not to say that you don’t need to show your character and her life and circumstances in living Technicolor. The details you share with your reader have to be just as rich as those in an Ansel Adams photograph, but they also have to be the ones that move your story dynamically from one freeze frame to the next.
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