As a book reviewer, one of the areas of the book I analyze is writing style. I try to inform the potential reader about what type of book I’ve read.
Think about the different authors you’ve read. Besides the different genres having, or sometimes requiring, different styles, consider the multitude of authors in only one genre.
Horror – H.P. Lovecraft wrote lengthy sentences with details galore.
Stephen King writes flashback scenes with a lot of detail. Richard Laymon wrote very succinctly with just enough to get you started, then right into the scary bits.
Mystery – Robert Parker wrote quick scenes, high speed tennis match dialogue, quick action scenes. Christie’s characters were there for you to see if you knew what you were looking for. Details came subtly.
Each author has his or her own style. Sometimes detail is needed to bring the reader into a scene. Other times you’re ready to move on with the story. Details can be tricky for writers, especially during action or climactic scenes. For instance, do you remember the famous car chase in the movie Bullitt? Of course you do. Everybody does. My mother remembers it and she’s never seen the movie. Imagine if you’re reading it and in the middle of the squealing tires and the lost hubcaps, McQueen’s character suddenly waxes philosophical about a pretty billboard. Doesn’t work, does it?
Details should pertain to the scene but not overwhelm it. A friend of mine writes down the five senses and fills in the details for each scene. She probably doesn’t use all five sensory details in every scene, but if they’re important, they need to be included.
Character detail is important, too. What attributes or quirks about a character are necessary to list? If a character limps, is it necessary to let the reader know? How debilitating is the condition? Will this person be fleeing through the forest, the killer yards away, where that limp may play a factor in whether he survives? Does one of the women in your story have long hair? How important is this? Well, can you realistically imagine reading about a patrol officer with Crystal Gayle length locks?
Details bring characters into better focus. So many times I’ve read stories where many of the characters aren’t defined or speak and act similarly. I don’t want to have to guess which character is speaking in a conversation. I should be able to tell by the ‘sound’ of his voice or the movements he makes.
Long before I wrote “Beta” I did a character outline for my detective/martial artist Mallory Petersen. Nobody told me to do this; it just made sense to have details I could include. So in various scenes, I could throw in various factoids to give the reader a better feel for the character. Mallory hates coffee, but loves Dr Pepper. She drives a 1971 Dodge Dart. She likes lavender and lilacs. She doesn’t own a pet. Her gun is a North American .380. Although physically fit, she does ingest ‘bad’ food such as cheeseburgers.
I discovered a minor problem with one of the details regarding Mallory. Her height. She’s a six foot blonde. This meant any bad guys she fought who would give her any realistic competition needed to be taller. She overwhelms the average man, but I had to make her adversaries bigger and taller.
When listing details for setting, remember what’s important and how those details affect the scene. You’re not going to have a guy shading his eyes against the sun’s reflection off a shiny car on an overcast day. However, the secret agent might be able to smell cigarette smoke in the crisp winter air from across the lawn.
Develop your character outline thoroughly, but don’t go overboard and write a life history from day one. If your protagonist once stole a candy bar when she was eight, watched a dog piddle against a fire hydrant after school when she was ten, and once saw something in her mother’s closet at age twelve that she’s kept secret for decades…are those important to the present story? If not, who cares? You’re wasting your time when you could be writing the story.