Sherlock Holmes: You see, but you do not observe

So Holmes informed Watson in A Scandal in Bohemia (“Don’t just see: observe” on my Holmes mug makes the same point). Holmes doesn’t just see people, he notices them. The placement of their callouses, the stains on their clothes, whether they’ve dressed carefully or rapidly, the wear and tear on their possessions. From all of which he can learn much.

It’s a good rule for writers too, I think. Observe our characters. Don’t just see them, observe specific, telling, or at least colorful details. Is the calendar on their computer blocked up with non-stop meetings instead of productive work? Does the female lead dress loud and flamboyant or with crisp understated elegance? Does the handsome dude swagger over to the woman he wants to ask out or politely try to strike up a casual conversation first?

A lot of details don’t tell us anything and aren’t colorful. Countless actor profiles I’ve read over the years make a point to mention the brand of cigarette they cigarette they smoke, which tells us nothing about them. Nor is it a vivid, colorful detail — I assume the reason for the reference is just product placement. Designer labels may tell us something — a character really dresses in the best fashion, or they contrast character A from the character wearing off the rack or shopping at thrift stores — or nothing. As Georgia O’Keefe says, it’s only by selecting details carefully we get at the meaning of things.

Reading my latest chapter of Impossible Takes a Little Longer to my writing group reminded me of the flip side: don’t offer so many observations that you drown  the reader’s awareness. The third chapter has KC coping with the second angel to show up that day, talking about it with her cop buddy Skeeter, then waiting at home to see if the angel returns, while talking on the phone with first her BFF Sarah and then her potential friends-with-benefits Matt. The consensus was that I just hit the reader with more stuff that they could take in.

Some of that is because it’s been a while since the first two chapters so they didn’t remember things that had already been established (not their fault, I have the same problem when other people read chapters of their novels stretched out over a few months). Part of it is the perennial problem of first drafts (and this is my first using KC as first-person narrator) squeezing in lots of info up front instead of spacing it out. I’m not info-dumping but I probably am I overdoing it, as I’m not sure yet what’s essential to know or when I’ll be able to work it in.

And part of it is that I just overdo detail. I’ve had this complaint before: I throw in so much detail about the world or the setting that the readers aren’t sure what’s important or who’s important. I have a very hard time writing a crowd scene as just a crowd; I want to throw in a few distinctive individuals even if they don’t play a role in the story. Which I think is good in moderation but it appears I do it to the point readers get overwhelmed.

I shall keep this in mind as I go forward with KC’s story.

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Filed under Sherlock Holmes, Writing

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