‘Herald paused only for a quick coffee and hurried to the door.’

Even if the coffee was cool, he spent at least five seconds drinking it and a couple more moving to the door. It takes less than two seconds for the reader to read it.

‘Arriving at the office he …’

If you live in a city like Toronto and are travelling any distance at rush hour the commute took between twenty and forty minutes, maybe longer. The sentence can be read in under a second.

‘Reaching his desk, he started up the antiquated computer inherited from the past occupant of his small, drab office.’

The office is drab and the computer old. In actual fact three walls are cream coloured while the fourth, framing a door, is mostly glass. The computer is not floating in mid-air. It’s sitting on an ‘L’ shaped desk made of wood with three drawers at one end. The desk is painted white and there is a scratch running from the centre to the two-thirds mark towards the back. A small chip is missing from the corner nearest the drawers. The chair has a chrome frame, no arms and a faux leather cushion for the seat and back. The cushion is attached by four pairs of rivets. On one of the office walls hangs a whiteboard on which is written, ‘Boss – Wed. – 4pm’, ‘Derick report’, ‘knife?’ and ‘Dry cleaning Tue.’. The ceiling consists of white, polystyrene, surface mount tiles and the floor consists of grey, nylon carpet with a worn path from door to desk. In addition there is a faded beige stain from what might have been coffee in a pattern reminiscent of a lopsided daisy missing more than three-quarters of its petals.

By now I think you get the idea. In fiction, time is condensed and all descriptions are summaries. In theory you could spend an entire book describing in detail, inch by inch, or even millimeter by millimeter, the interior of one room. No-one would read the book but it would be possible to write.


[Related: Hate writing blurbs? I’ll do it for you. Check out my blurb writing service.]


It is precisely this compression of time and paucity of detail which makes fiction enjoyable. Consider the Harry Potter series. One reason it is so possible is because people relate to the characters. They don’t relate purely because they have magic. Nor do they relate only because these characters find themselves in a battle between good and evil. Real lives are much more mundane. They relate because these are the ideal characters they’d like to hang out with if given the opportunity. They’re in school but they usually spend less than a page on homework. They never spend forty-five minutes on a single math problem and then realize they’ve got a French exercise they need to complete for tomorrow. Real life is time consuming. Fiction isn’t. Real life involves both washing the dishes, drying them and putting them back in the cupboard. If fictional characters need to wash dishes at all, the washing becomes subordinate to some witty conversation. Simply put, fiction focusses on the interesting stuff in life and minimizes the day-to-day details.   

When you write you require some detail but the trick is to focus on the right things. Considering the Harry Potter example, what do you think of when you think of Hermione Granger? Long, light brown hair, rather curly and hanging over her shoulders comes to mind. Next, perhaps, is her eyes, intelligent, focussed and able to penetrate to the heart of both situations and academic matters. She can be brought to life with a few details. Massive description isn’t required.

Think about what you’re trying to accomplish in any given scene. One author (whose name I’ve forgotten) suggests, in fiction, you have action, dialogue, descriptions, summaries, exposition and transition. Summaries, exposition and transitions should best be kept terse for the most part but they do play a role. Action and dialogue are very important and description fits somewhere in the middle. By condensing several months into a few hundred pages you will, of necessity, omit well over ninety-nine percent of what went on, but with just the correct amount of description, meaningful dialogue and exciting action, you can make that less than one percent shine like a diamond.   



This guest post was contributed by Doug Lewars. Doug is not necessarily over the hill but he’s certainly approaching the summit. He enjoys writing, reading, fishing and sweets of all sorts. He has published thirteen books on Smashwords.com.