--Summarized from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. By Browne and King--
Sometimes, I am enjoying a book when I come to a passage and think, “YAWN.” The plot grinds to a stop, or an action which should take a moment takes pages to describe, and I am suddenly reminded that I have to switch the laundry or wash the dog or trim my dinosaur’s toenails.
Or, occasionally I’ll be reading along and have to stop because I get lost in the action. Where did that character come from? He wasn’t holding a sword before. I don’t understand. At that point, I either re-read until I understand, wrecking the pace of the story, or I fling the book at the wall and stomp off to vent my frustration on some unfortunate inanimate object.
This is a problem writing instructors call “proportion.” To oversimplify, it’s a matter of focus. Usually, a piece that is labeled “out of proportion” means that the author has decided to either indulge in a long description for its own sake (and to the detriment of the pace of the story), or, on the other end of the scale, omit description that would be helpful to the reader.
Both of these are sins of a writer who is not thinking of his or her reader. When you are writing a first draft, you should NOT think of your reader, but when you are editing, revising, polishing a draft, you should imagine your reader peeking over your shoulder. If she starts yawning or tapping you to ask “What’s that mean?” you need to adjust the proportions—the focus—of your details.
Now, all asides—chunks of information—should do something beside impart information. Usually they reveal character, set a scene, develop a subplot, or give the world of the story some depth.
However, many writers write about the things they love (“darlings,” if you will). If you’ve ever talked to someone who is in love, whether with a person, an object, or a hobby or passion, you’ve seen a person glaze over and wax poetical, usually about something you don’t give a hair for. Isn’t that boring? Don’t be that guy.
However, proportion can be a tool to manipulate your readers’ expectations. Mystery writers are experts at this, spending time developing characters and objects that lead the reader away from the actual criminals and murder weapons. These are called “red herrings,” but all the writers do to create them is focus on providing details on something that isn’t actually important. Most readers won’t notice this kind of manipulation, unless you pull a machina ex deus on them.
One last way to control proportion is by using point of view (POV). Every character notices and describes different things, so a writer can use different characters to control information. Imagine the difference between a scene described by someone watching a horse auction for the first time versus an old horseman standing next to him. Which is going to notice the slight limp of the animal in the auction ring? The writer needs to pick the point of view when deciding how much the reader needs to notice the limp.
To sum up, detail and description needs to work just as hard as the rest of your writing. If you have a chapter on the natural history of whales, as Mody Dick does, then you better be Herman effing Melville. You need to construct a balance between the focus of your descriptions, the purpose of those passages, and the attention span of your readers.
(By the way, you probably aren’t Herman effing Melville yet, but it’s good to have goals.)
1. When you are editing your work, first, let it sit a few days so you can gain some distance from it. This will help you look at the story with some objectivity. Then print out a copy (so you can resist temptation to fiddle with it) and read it as if you were a reader, not a writer. Mark everything that seems interesting, lively, intriguing to you as a reader.
2. Then, look at the parts that you did not mark. Why is that stuff there? If it doesn’t interest you as a reader/writer, why would it interest your reader? Is it needed? Can it be cut or dovetailed into another part of the scene via dialogue or a beat?
3. Then, re-read and look for parts where there is not enough description. Do swords suddenly appear? How did they get there? If the reader needs to know about the intricacies of carburetor tuning to understand how the killer got away, you need to find a way to describe that unobtrusively.