One of the hardest problems for rookie writers is mastering an appropriate level of detail. For most beginners, the chore is learning how to build your imaginative muscles to the point where you can create any convincing detail at all. But soon enough the opposite problem can arise: once the details start flowing, how do you know when to stop? Say you want to have a character make an entrance in a story. How much do you tell the reader about her up front?
My last post looked at a modern master, F. Scott Fitzgerald, introducing Daisy Buchanan, in The Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald is a card-carrying member of the High Literary Tradition; he aspired to the pantheon. Chances are Gatsby will be read 100 years from now in college literature classes – if there are colleges and if there are literature classes and if there is reading.
Writers in the High Lit Tradition revel in detail. The greats tend to be hyper-observant, and their characteristic sin against the reader is the opposite of the neophyte’s problem – an excess of detail. As the critic James Wood puts it in How Fiction Works:
In Flaubert [a High Lit man all the way] and his successors we have the sense that the ideal of writing is a procession of strung details, a necklace of noticings, and that this is sometimes an obstruction to seeing, not an aid.
But there is another tradition – what you might call the Low Lit Style, the one that aspires, first, to keeping the reader turning the page to find out what will happen next and, ultimately, to best-sellerdom. Think Stephen King, Laura Lippman, Ruth Rendell, and that supreme master of Low Lit, Elmore Leonard.
In his famous 10 rules of writing, Leonard lays out #8, #9, and #10:
- Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.
- Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.
- Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
And Leonard adds, “My most important rule is one that sums up the 10. If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.”
Sounds simple enough, but here’s the problem. To work out the level of detail issue, you first need to determine what kind of writer you are. That seems stunningly obvious, but I still haven’t quite figured it out for myself. Are you more like P.D. James or Iris Murdoch? Would you be happy to be Donald Westlake or would you prefer William Faulkner? It makes a difference – one might say all the difference where details are concerned.
Let’s say you’re trying to write genre fiction – a thriller, a romance, a mystery, a vampire story, or a Swedish cyber-punk detective tale of deep corruption in high places that combines all of the above. Then you need to stick to the Low Lit Style and follow Elmore’s rules.
Here’s the late mystery novelist Robert B. Parker introducing a couple of characters in Hundred-Dollar Baby, his 2006 novel featuring his favored detective,Spenser. This is the first appearance of a dude named Tony Marcus, who arrives at Spenser’s office in a Cadillac SUV wearing a tweed overcoat with a fur collar, and his driver, a young man named Ty-Bop:
Tony hung his coat carefully, and pulled up a chair and sat, hiking his pant legs to protect the creases. Ty-Bop lingered by the door with his hat on sideways over corn-rows. He was wearing droopy jeans and a thigh-length, too-big, unbuttoned Philadelphia 76ers warm-up jacket over some sort of football jersey. He looked about twenty, a standard gangsta rap fan in funny clothes, except he could put a bullet in your eye from fifty yards. Either eye.
This is Spenser’s point of view, told in the third person in the free indirect style – in short, what he notices about these two guys. What do we learn about Tony in these few lines? Two traits: his cautiousness, seen in his treatment of his clothes, and his contrast to Ty-Bop.
And what about Ty-Bop? Parker ends the paragraph with a classic private-eye’s wry twist of ominous foreshadowing. Ty-Bop looks like a “standard” street punk except for a certain deadly skill. How does Spenser know about his marksmanship at this point? We’ll find out as the story progresses. But Spenser seems to be making an overly explicit presumption about Ty-Bop. This is the kind of slip in point of view that would get you marked down in the High Lit Tradition, but is often standard procedure in the Low Lit. In part, this kind of thing is why Parker is Low Lit.
Here’s Parker again, later in the novel, having Spenser meet a character from a very different social set – a fellow named Lionel Farnsworth who lives in a Manhattan apartment building with a doorman who calls up his visitors:
He was a really good-looking guy. About my height but slimmer. His dark hair had just enough gray highlights. It was longish and wavy and brushed straight back. He had a nice tan, and even features, and very fine teeth. He was wearing gray slacks and a dark double-breasted blazer, and God help us, a white silk scarf.
Parker’s short sentences serve as brush strokes, mirroring Spenser’s first visual impressions. Parker synecdochizes Farnsworth’s hair to give us the essence of the man in one physical trait – well-kept and well-cared for, comfortable, a lifetime of the good life manifested in his lush pelt. The wry-twist kicker comes with that white silk scarf, nicely placed as the punch line. Parker’s special genius resides in the aside, “God help us,” the only point where Spenser’s mind breaks from deadpan physical impressions for editorial commentary.
In my view the Parker/Spenser descriptions of Ty-Bop and Farnsworth are exemplary Low Lit. In a brief space, with just a couple of details, Parker makes us see the character. Of course, another tip-off that Parker is Low Lit is that each character conforms exactly to the type in your head, be it street punk or pampered rich guy. Low Lit tends to confirm reader expectations, while High Lit often surprises.
So Parker has two lessons for those of us pursuing Low Lit:
- Speed is the supreme virtue – you don’t need or want more than a couple of sentences to give your reader a vivid sketch of a character on first meeting.
- Make the details you choose to reveal “telling details.”
Note: This is a revised version of a 317am post from last year, post #2 in my Tips for Writers series running this week and next.