In an earlier blog post, I told you I practically rewrote my first novel when I learned about the ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ rule. I’m humbled to say that I had to rewrite it again when I learned about the ‘Don’t Hand Out the Whole Police Report’ rule.
So what does ‘Don’t Hand Out the Whole Police Report’ mean? I can best explain with an example.
Susanna retreated to the veranda, sat down on one of the high-back wicker chairs facing the water and sipped what was left of her watered-down mint julep. The troubling conversation she had just had with her son, Harold, had lingered in her head for the past hour. It wasn’t enough he was going to Brazil to join his best friend, George, to help save the Amazon rainforest, but he was leaving his wife and three small children behind to fend for themselves. George had been in Brazil for two years and had more than one close call with the natives who didn’t want foreigners of any kind in their village. Harold knew this and still wanted to join in on what he considered to be one of the most valiant environmental efforts on the face of the earth and didn’t care how dangerous it could be. And it wasn’t only the natives they had to watch out for–there were also malaria-carrying mosquitoes, blood-sucking leaches and other critters lurking in the depths of the rainforest. George had already made the arrangements for Harold’s arrival, complete with an escort by local jungle police from the small plane to the nearest river and then to the campsite. Susanna stared out the window shaking her head, while the last remnant of Bourbon slid down her throat.
That was the whole police report. It runs the risk of losing readers. They’re likely to skip over it, and then there’s the risk of them missing something that reallyis important. In the revised version that follows, I kept in only what was essential at that point in the story, allowing the reader to think about and wonder what lie ahead for Harold and his family.
Susanna retreated to the veranda, sat down on one of the high-back wicker chairs facing the water and sipped what was left of her watered-down mint julep. The troubling conversation she had just had with her son, Harold, had lingered in her head for the past hour. It wasn’t enough he was going to Brazil to join his best friend, George, to help save the Amazon rainforest, but he was leaving his wife and three small children behind to fend for themselves. She stared out the window shaking her head, while the last remnant of Bourbon slid down her throat.
Whether you throw away the leftovers or introduce them at a later place depends on whether they are germane to the story line. And even if they are germane, you may still want to eliminate them and let your readers fill it in on their own, forcing them closer to the action and the characters. Readers actually like that sort of thing as long as it’s not too confusing or overdone.
Along the same lines, it is generally unnecessary to include all the niceties in each scene. For example, in a scene with dialogue, do you really need to describe two people approaching each other, shaking hands and asking each other how their day has been? Probably not. Unless, of course, in the past they have been bitter enemies and their sudden politeness adds to the story.
Sometimes the pace of a scene will dictate how much detail to include. If it’s a fast-paced scene, too much detail will bog it down. No one wants to be bothered with little details when there’s action going on. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to write about the gorgeous sunset on the western horizon while the off-duty policeman is chasing an armed robber down a dark alley. You could save that detail for the scene where the policeman’s wife is sitting on their back porch, sipping a glass of wine, wondering why her husband isn’t home yet from his trip to the 7-Eleven for a carton of milk.
Historical fiction requires more detail than modern fiction because readers need to be educated (or reminded) of what was going on in that time period. Think about party lines. (I’m hoping there is someone out there who remembers them.) If your scene involves someone talking on the phone and suspects someone is listening in on the party line, and you don’t explain what a party line is, readers born after 1955 will say, “Huh?” In this case, more of the police report would be helpful.
Too much backstory is another way to slow down the story unnecessarily and bore the reader. When backstory is truly essential to the story, it is best to offer it in small doses, and not right in the beginning. It’s best to hook your readers into the story before giving them any backstory.
How much detail is too much detail? It’s all a balancing act, and what complicates the matter is that different readers want different levels of details. What will satisfy one reader’s need for extensive detail will annoy another. So how do you choose? I think you have to decide that for yourself. You know the most about the characters and the story, so you are in the best position to know what and what not to include. If you’re still not sure, have an experienced editor critique your work. Just keep in mind, editors are also humans, so they will have differing opinions as well. Keep in mind it’s a matter of taste, and you can’t please everyone.
All that said, eliminating details doesn’t necessarily mean the narrator doesn’t need to know what they are. Knowing the details and backstory can be helpful in creating what really is important to conveying the story.