the wrong details

I’ve read or listened to four novels in the last week, none of which I’m going to review in any depth, although one of them irritated me enough to trigger this posting.

I write a lot of high-action scenes, and I like reading them, too, so I think it’s fair to say that I’ve made a study of what goes into one. You want the reader to be on edge, tense, reading fast because it’s exciting. There are different ways to get such scenes to work. Short, clean sentences are often effective, without the use of a lot of modal verbs (‘he could see’ is not as effective as ‘he saw’). A good action scene as an arc all its own, and a rhythm.

So I’m listening to a novel on tape, and right in the last page there’s a quick action scene where the main female character sees two men about to rape a woman in an alley. She sends her son off to get help and then wades in. I’m not going to give you the paragraph here, because I don’t see any upside in offending this author; I’ll paraphrase, sentence by sentence.

Jean picks up her skirts, takes a deep breath. … She observes the men in detail; both are scruffy, unshaven, dirty … She observes what she can see of the woman, who is struggling … She marches into the dim alleyway … She thinks about the smells and the dark and the fact that she’s afraid; she worries that the men are armed … The woman being attacked screams … The men laugh
Jean picks up a two-by-four as she marches down the alley … The men don’t notice her coming up from behind … She whams one of them across his ear and on the backswing nails the other one … The woman on the ground starts to crawl away … The second man lunges for Jean, and they struggle … She trips over the first man, goes down. … The second man throws himself on top of her. Jean spends a sentence noticing how badly he smells … The second man tells her that for her interference, she’s going to get what the other woman had coming. … He grabs her ankles. … The man falls over as he is whammed from behind by her son.

Okay, so, there’s some pretty predictable stuff here, but a competent writer can make this scene work. It will require some good details beyond the predictable. For example, why is it that male attackers are always filthy and scruffy? Wouldn’t it be more effective — more shocking — if one or both of these men were elegantly dressed, and smelled of expensive perfume? Maybe one of them is wearing a tie Jean happens to recognize as Gucci and costing $350, because she bought one just like it for her husband. Maybe one of them has a dentist’s instrument in his shirt pocket.

You could make it work; there are some promising things here. I personally find it pretty scary when in any fictional setting a woman is grabbed by her ankles. There’s a vulnerability about ankles.

But. You see where the **** breaks up the paragraph? That’s where this author, this misguided author, this author whose editor wasn’t paying attention, put in a sentence with multiple clauses… about the two-by-four. Something like this (again, paraphrasing):

There were a number of two-by-fours of various lengths leaning against the wall, left over, Jean knew, from the repair work being done to the boardwalk.

It’s hard to even know where to start with what a bad idea it was to tell us about this two-by-four, but I’ll try. You’ve got a rhythm going, you’ve got the readers interested, engaged, horrified, eager… and you stop to contemplate a two-by-four. You interrupt the adrenaline surge and the moral outrage that are fueling Jean’s rather rash decision, and why? To have her contemplate the origins of that two-by-four. She must observe how many pieces of wood there are, how they differ from one another, rack her brain for the background information that tells her who put them there, and why.

What was this author thinking?

This kind of stunt is like a bucket of cold water falling from the rafters in the middle of a seduction scene: calculated to stop all forward movement. Imagine the author coming up behind the reader while she’s in the middle of this scene and whipping the book out of her hands to say, wait wait, before you find out what happens and who gets attacked and how seriously, don’t you want to know about that two-by-four? I’m worried you’re wondering about it and thinking it’s unrealistic that it’s there at all, but see, she needed a weapon and that was the best thing I could come up with, and I’m hoping you’ll accept it as feasible. Whaddaya think? Oh, and I hope you like the story otherwise.

Never, ever, stop in the middle of a high-energy scene to explain things. Action and explanation don’t belong in the same paragraph. Action is about big verbs, big emotions, big observations; leave explanations for later, if you need them at all. The sensory impressions your POV character has are important, but again, they shouldn’t slow things down. On her way to confront violent men who may be armed, should Jean be contemplating their personal hygiene, or lack of it? I think not. Choose your verbs and your observations very carefully; use tight constructions; forget the origin of the damn two-by-four. And that’s my best advice.

4 Replies to “the wrong details”

  1. This reminded me of the late great Douglas Adams’s way of describing how to go about flying; You trip, and then on your way to the ground you forget that you are falling. Difficult to pull off, admittedly, but possible. Of course, in a literary context, the author does the exact opposite: in order to crash a perfectly good action scene, all you have to do is to forget for a moment that you are marching into the breech. Difficult to do, perhaps, but very efficient if you’re looking to wake up the reader to the fact that you’re telling a story.

    And that’s about two cents’ worth…

  2. Now I’m wondering where that Douglas Adams quote is from. Do you happen to know, exactly? I remember reading it too, but where?

  3. Erm…. Last one of the original three books? Definately third or fourth, but I think third. That would be So long and thanks for all the fish, unless I’m mistaken. It has been a long time since I last read them…

    I do remember that it was quite different from the rest of the story in that it’s quite romantic to read about how Arthur and his girl learn to fly together, whereas before that, Adams hardly bothered with tenderer fellings. Bless.


  4. Found this via Google:

    How To Fly
    ? by Douglas Adams

    There is an art, it says, or rather, a knack to flying. The knack lies in learning how to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Pick a nice day, [The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy] suggests, and try it.

    The first part is easy. All it requires is simply the ability to throw yourself forward with all your weight, and the willingness not to mind that it’s going to hurt.

    That is, it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss the ground. Most people fail to miss the ground, and if they are really trying properly, the likelihood is that they will fail to miss it fairly hard.

    Clearly, it is the second part, the missing, which presents the difficulties.

    One problem is that you have to miss the ground accidentally. It’s no good deliberately intending to miss the ground because you won’t. You have to have your attention suddenly distracted by something else when you’re halfway there, so that you are no longer thinking about falling, or about the ground, or about how much it’s going to hurt if you fail to miss it.

    It is notoriously difficult to prize your attention away from these three things during the split second you have at your disposal. Hence most people’s failure, and their eventual disillusionment with this exhilarating and spectacular sport.

    If, however, you are lucky enough to have your attention momentarily distracted at the crucial moment by, say, a gorgeous pair of legs (tentacles, pseudopodia, according to phyllum and/or personal inclination) or a bomb going off in your vicinty, or by suddenly spotting an extremely rare species of beetle crawling along a nearby twig, then in your astonishment you will miss the ground completely and remain bobbing just a few inches above it in what might seem to be a slightly foolish manner.

    This is a moment for superb and delicate concentration. Bob and float, float and bob. Ignore all consideration of your own weight simply let yourself waft higher. Do not listen to what anybody says to you at this point because they are unlikely to say anything helpful. They are most likely to say something along the lines of “Good God, you can’t possibly be flying!” It is vitally important not to believe them or they will suddenly be right.

    Waft higher and higher. Try a few swoops, gentle ones at first, then drift above the treetops breathing regularly.


    When you have done this a few times you will find the moment of distraction rapidly easier and easier to achieve.

    You will then learn all sorts of things about how to control your flight, your speed, your maneuverability, and the trick usually lies in not thinking too hard about whatever you want to do, but just allowing it to happen as if it were going to anyway.

    You will also learn about how to land properly, which is something you will almost certainly screw up, and screw up badly, on your first attempt.

    There are private clubs you can join which help you achieve the all-important moment of distraction. They hire people with surprising bodies or opinions to leap out from behind bushes and exhibit and/or explain them at the critical moments. Few genuine hitchhikers will be able to afford to join these clubs, but some may be able to get temporary employment at them.

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