Details: Hitting the Sweet Spot

Let’s talk a little bit more about what details to include in your memoir, whether self-written or ghostwritten. Most folks know that details are important, but sometimes this leads them to write in a lot of irrelevant details, and that bores and annoys the reader, whereas relevant details make the story really sing.

It’s important to note the difference between details that are integral to the plot rather than details that are incidental to the plot. The difference between the two might seem subtle, but it makes a world of difference in your memoir or novel-based-upon-a-true-story.

For instance, a friend of mine is writing a mystery novel set in Santa Fe. In her research she read that novels based in a specific town tend to be very attractive to locals. People love to read about themselves! So, in practically every scene of the book, she drives by local landmarks like the Loretto Chapel and the Cathedral, walks past adobe homes with coyote fences, visits local malls, and encounters red-chile ristras hang from every possible structure.

You could call it overkill, but that’s not specific enough of a term. The term to describe this type of detail is incidental. She happens to drive past these landmarks, she happens to walk past these homes, but those landmarks have nothing to do with the plot of the story. They’re just sitting there in the background, filling up the book with extra pages that don’t further the plot. If your story contains this type of scene-setting background noise, cut it. Now, let me tell you how to make the same details integral, not incidental, to your story.

In the novel, if the detective finds a clue hidden inside a cholla cactus and can’t get to it until he borrows a machete and hacks the cactus apart, the cactus detail (and the machete) is integral to the plot. It’s indicative of the local flora, and it’s an important part of moving the story forward.

If the criminal hides in a dry arroyo and then has to scramble up the bank because of a flash flood, and that’s how he gets caught by the sheriff, then the arroyo and the flash flood are integral parts of moving the plot forward, as well as interesting Southwestern details.

The criminal didn’t just happen to walk by the arroyo and notice it. He didn’t just happen to read about a flash flood in the local newspaper. He encountered these things as part of taking action that moves the plot forward. When you include enough integral details, you can cut out the incidental background detail stuff.

Just because the story is set in a specific place, doesn’t mean you have to overdo it on details. A side note to this is the fact that sometimes a client really really really wants to include a certain detail, but it’s not integral to the plot. If this happens to you, ask yourself why this detail is so important. Really look at it. Maybe the protagonist needs to have a meaningful interaction with this detail after all? Such inquiry could help improve the plot.

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