Writing Right with Dmitri: Avoiding Writer OCD
How hard is it to set the stage for a story? Hold my beer, says Philip K Dick.
The car slid to a stop. It was night; there was no light anywhere along the street. Conger looked out. "Where are we? What is this place?"
The hand of the guard pressed into his arm. "Come. Through that door."
Conger stepped down, onto the damp sidewalk. The guard came swiftly after him, and then the Speaker. Conger took a deep breath of the cold air. He studied the dim outline of the building rising up before them.
"I know this place. I've seen it before." He squinted, his eyes growing accustomed to the dark. Suddenly he became alert. "This is –"
"Yes. The First Church." The Speaker walked toward the steps. "We're expected."
"Yes." The Speaker mounted the stairs. "You know we're not allowed in their Churches, especially with guns!" He stopped. Two armed soldiers loomed up ahead, one on each side.
"All right?" The Speaker looked up at them. They nodded. The door of the Church was open. Conger could see other soldiers inside, standing about, young soldiers with large eyes, gazing at the ikons and holy images.
"I see," he said.
"It was necessary," the Speaker said. "As you know, we have been singularly unfortunate in the past in our relations with the First Church."
"This won't help."
"But it's worth it. You will see."
There's a tiny little bit of the story before this scene. It's almost entirely conversation. We learn that Conger, the protagonist, is in prison, and that some Council or other wants him to kill somebody. That's all we get: but it's enough.
We know we're not in Kansas anymore. It's a weird world. But we don't yet know how weird, or what's going on here. We're willing to wait, though, and let the story unfold. It's all very satisfying.
Now look at this:
There was, until a year ago, a little and very grimy-looking shop near Seven Dials, over which, in weather-worn yellow lettering, the name of "C. Cave, Naturalist and Dealer in Antiquities," was inscribed. The contents of its window were curiously variegated. They comprised some elephant tusks and an imperfect set of chessmen, beads and weapons, a box of eyes, two skulls of tigers and one human, several moth-eaten stuffed monkeys (one holding a lamp), an old-fashioned cabinet, a flyblown ostrich egg or so, some fishing-tackle, and an extraordinarily dirty, empty glass fish-tank. There was also, at the moment the story begins, a mass of crystal, worked into the shape of an egg and brilliantly polished. And at that two people, who stood outside the window, were looking, one of them a tall, thin clergyman, the other a black-bearded young man of dusky complexion and unobtrusive costume. he dusky young man spoke with eager gesticulation, and seemed anxious for his companion to purchase the article.
While they were there, Mr. Cave came into his shop, his beard still wagging with the bread and butter of his tea. When he saw these men and the object of their regard, his countenance fell. He glanced guiltily over his shoulder, and softly shut the door. He was a little old man, with pale face and peculiar watery blue eyes; his hair was a dirty grey, and he wore a shabby blue frock coat, an ancient silk hat, and carpet slippers very much down at heel. He remained watching the two men as they talked. The clergyman went deep into his trouser pocket, examined a handful of money, and showed his teeth in an agreeable smile. Mr. Cave seemed still more depressed when they came into the shop.
'The Crystal Egg', by HG Wells
Now, I'm not saying that Mr Wells' story won't be interesting, but which of the two stories requires more energy and goodwill on the part of the reader before it gets started? Which of these two stories are you going to click on and read over at Gutenberg.org? I rest my case.
Friend, are you overtaxing your readers with scene-setting? Is your imaginary universe far too large and ornate? Do you have uncontrollable urges when it comes to filling in every tiny detail, and leaving nothing to the reader's imagination?
If so, my friend, you have Writer OCD1. And you're making your readers tired, and turning them off.
Is your character tall? Put away that tape measure, unless it's a plot point. Okay, if you're writing romance, you absolutely have to know whether the hero's hair is wavy or curly, and what colour his eyes are. (Hazel, and they turn green when he's passionate. . . oh, stop that.) But if you aren't writing romance, cut it out. Leave that sort of thing to the reader's imagination.
Never, ever, ever build a whole scifi universe and expect the reader to memorise it before anything happens in it. If you want to do that, keep it to yourself: it's called a hobby. It is not called writing. A lot of science fiction fails for exactly that reason: it's too detailed. Nobody wants to read all that.
The art of writing, like the art of painting, composing, or dancing, is as much about what you leave out as about what you put in. If the reader feels imposed upon, the reader will go elsewhere. Look for the important details, and use them like a sketch artist. Like your readers, you're exploring a world – the one inside your head. Go see what you can find, rather than delivering complete maps with GPS coordinates.
Okay, now what is this 'First Church' about? And why is this story called 'The Skull'? See you later. . .