Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Under Things and Unmentionables

Ah! Got your attention with that one.
But, alas, this is not to be a Victoria's Secret post - not even, well, a Victorian secret post.

Salem History

What this will be is a quick summary of something my favorite author said. Very, very loosely paraphrasing:
As an author, there are all sorts of wonderful tidbits we know about our book: characteristics of people, history, bits of conversation, poetry/song/dance(?) - hence things that are under the radar of the main plot - Under Things.

The second part of the loosely, loosely paraphrased advice is: Don't tell the reader. Unless, Unless the thing moves the story forward in some way. Otherwise these things are, and should be considered, Unmentionable.

As a (maybe extreme) example of failing to do this, I recently listened to a book on tape which shall remain unnamed. It was a nice story, interesting, somewhat compelling.
The End
Except that it wasn't the end. After the day was saved, the author backed up and redid the climactic battle from another character's point of view just to show how that character heroically wrapped up his own story line.
The End
Nope. It went back again and described the battlefield, and then went forward in time to how the plains became a place of picnics and Maypoles in some distant future time.
The End
But no... Seriously, it went on and on until I wondered if I'd stumbled into some seventh circle of the Simarilian.
I could tell that these details delighted the author and were meaningful to her.
But. I. Didn't. Care. 
(sorry, did that sound harsh?)

Compared to the above example, actually minding your Under Things and Unmentionables and Not Adding Every Single Detail can have several delightful benefits:

  • The readers have to work. When readers have to connect the dots themselves, they become vested in the story.
One of the reasons Harry Potter was so appealing was that we had to work toward discovering things right along with Harry.

  • Not telling everything gives a sense of depth to the story. Mentioning things without going into detail is like having the reader walk in on a group of friends sharing a joke - they want in on the joke, too. They just know there's something awesome behind it. 
Just ask any of MWT's fans about Ornon's lost sheep- 
What do we really know about the incident? Absolutely nothing except that sometime in the past, Eugenides did something to Ornon's sheep. Why do fans love it then? Because they know the result. Eugenides can rile up Ornon to no end by simply quietly baahing when he's around - and it sends everyone into gales of laughter. Now it's the fan's joke, too - even though we have no idea what originally happened.

  • It makes readers wonder. Wonder is one of the great tools of a writer. If a reader is left pondering a story after they close the back cover, then something lasting has happened. Loose ends are not always bad. Loose ends lead to conjecture, surmises, discussions, fanfic(?) - and that's when a story won't be forgotten.

So, all you writers, gird up your Under Things, don't get your Unmentionables in a wad, but whatever you do, don't let your readers see them! (unless it's absolutely necessary)



  1. It's so hard! When I first started writing, I wanted to tell everything--what time she woke up, what she ate for breakfast, who the first person she spoke to was, what they said, why exactly her grandmother could make her angry so easily, the stories from her childhood about how her sister could calm her down...yeah, some this is fantastic advice. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Melanie. I know what you mean. Sometimes it means letting the favorite scenes in your head go. I think those things you talk about help us imagine and create a rounded character - but once that character is formed, that's who the reader wants to see, not necessarily the stuff that shaped her.

  2. Replies
    1. You did a fabulous job striking the right balance in your book. Just saying :)

  3. This is excellent advice. I hate it too when an author goes into details far beyond what is needed. It can make the story tedious and feels a little self-indulgent on the writers part.

    But I have found that because I like a streamlined plot that I sometimes go to the other extreme and give too little, leaving the reader with too much work to do, if that makes sense. I think it is a tough balance to strike. Don't give readers too much, but give them enough. :)

    1. Yeah, too little and the reader is left scratching their head. Being so close to a story, I think this is one of the places crits can really help you see what needs to happen.

  4. This was such a great post. I love world building, or character building, and sometimes it's hard to scale back the information, but like you said, it's so important. You never want to make a reader stop caring. I'm surprised you got all the way through the book you mentioned. By the time I realize I just don't care, I'm usually reading something else.


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