Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Knocked Out by Weird Details

I’m still enjoying the book with the smoker [ See: Tate Hallaway's Blog: Personal Habits and Reader Sympathy], by the way, though I’ve run into something else that this author does that knocks me out of the story.

She over-shares.

It’s a strange phenomenon, and, I realized, one hundred percent related to my reaction to the nasty-details of the smoker’s habit. Because, if I wasn’t clear, the thing that most lost sympathy points for me as a reader wasn’t so much the smoking, per se, but the intimate details about it. Things I “saw,” like overflowing ashtrays, added just a bit too much realism for my comfort.

I wouldn’t think that it would be possible to knock a reader out of a story by writing a detail that’s accurate, but it happened to me twice in this book. Once, in the scene I previously described, and again in a moment after sex that was just a touch too real. Later, after some consideration, I ended up liking the later detail, but my initial reaction was “ewww!” which inadvertently knocked me out of the story.

Knocking a reader out of a story isn’t the same as making them uncomfortable in a self-actualization kind of moment. When an author stretches my mind, it’s not usually a painful jarring, “whoa, I have to put this book down for a second,” moment, it’s often an “ah-ha!” Either it’s an ah-ha that makes me look at something in a new way, or it’s an ah-ha, “so this was the author’s agenda” thing. Either way, getting knocked out of story is usually a fraction of a second when my reader brain tilts -- when I’m no longer IN the story, but suddenly aware that I’m reading a story.

This is often death for a story. Too many moments like that, and the book goes back on the shelf.

What’s weird to me about my experience with this particular book is that the knock-out moments I’ve experienced aren’t ones that “ring false,” (which is what usually kicks me out of a story), but those that are simply too graphic. I’m getting too much information about stuff I find kind of gross.

This realization distresses me. One of the things I always tell my writing students is that the way to universality is through truth in details. If you describe a scene with unflinching accuracy, your readers will feel it, the scene will become real to them, I tell my students. Now, I’m thinking that I might be wrong about that. There may be such a thing as too much realism.

Perhaps you have to be careful regarding details. Pick the things you expose with accurate description with caution. Too much perfect imagery about garbage is going to turn your readers off, which might be okay if the story is supposed to do that – like in a horror story, for instance. Ah, perhaps I’ve hit on the key. The details need to be appropriate in tone to the story you’re telling. Don’t linger on the gross bits in a story that’s meant to be a romantic, light-hearted romp.

The devil is in the details, indeed.

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