Last updated on July 14th, 2018
Novelists are often counseled to be specific with details, choosing one or two arresting ones to give a strong sense of a person, place, or thing. These focused items, often dubbed “salient details,” can powerfully and succinctly convey information better than the dreaded “info dump,” which tells too much and invites readers to skim.
This is good advice, but I frequently see it interpreted in a way that detracts from the story and leaves the reader confused. By that I mean an author uses brand names, jargon, any term, usually a proper noun, representing specialized knowledge—without offering a hint about what it represents.
For example: In a manuscript I recently edited, the protagonist was a fan of Biedermeier furniture. This style of furniture played a brief but important role in an ill-fated love affair between characters—but in the narrative the author didn’t tell the reader what Biedermeier furniture is. Similarly, the author at one point clothed the hero in a Tom Ford suit; and another time, the heroine stopped at a Bi-Lo at the end of a long trip.
Hands up, please: How many of you know what these things are?
If you do, then I assume you are up to date on vintage furniture, modern fashion, and store chains in the American South. If not, you’re probably doing what I did when I encountered the terms—scratching your head and muttering, “Huh?”
As an editor, I look for those “huh?” moments in all manuscripts and query the author when they occur. They tend to be carefully chosen “salient details” that are exactly right for the situation. But the effect is lost if the reader doesn’t get it.
Now, if just the target audience reads the finished book, then such salient details will draw a knowing and appreciative nod because they will be familiar to readers and achieve exactly what the author desires: an incisive way of characterizing a person, place, or thing. If, however, the book is read by people outside the target audience, then it’s guaranteed that some readers will not recognize the references, and go, “Huh?”
Also guaranteed is that every published book will be read by somebody outside the target audience. If the book sells really well, then lots of those people will read it. The goal, then, is to minimize the number of “huh?” moments for the full potential audience. To do that, authors must provide a little something extra any time they drop a name into the story.
Here’s how it played out with the above examples. In response to my queries, the author replied:
On the furniture: “I could mention Biedermeier is a style of art and design that flourished after the Napoleonic Wars until the mid-eighteenth century. It heralded the rise of the middle class in Germany and the Scandinavian countries. You are correct that urban folks and people in the arts are more likely to know what a Biedermeier piece of furniture is, or a Bergere chair, with padded wooden arms, seat, and back and a curvy delicate silhouette. But damn, that gets clunky.”
Yep. The full info gets clunky, even if it’s crucial to the story. So the author’s challenge is to decide how much (little) needs to be included so readers who are not versed in the subject understand what it is and why it’s important to the character, without disrupting story flow. Often, a single line will serve.
The author solved it just that way, having the heroine comment in the narrative, “I love Biedermeier, a sleekly streamlined furniture style catering to the tastes of a budding European middle class during the mid-nineteenth century.” Then she cantered along with the story.
On the suit: “I probably spent an hour looking at men’s suits online to find the right one. Comme des Garcon? Boss? Versace? Ralph Lauren? I chose Tom Ford since his clothes can only be worn by men in their absolute prime because of how close to the body he cuts.”
That last line nails it. Now I understand; but, unexplained, it still leaves unfashionable readers in the dark. How to convey to them why a Tom Ford suit matters?
In the novel, a conversation discusses the suit, during which we learn (1) the heroine is something of an expert on formal wear because of her job, and (2) the hero allows his mother to choose his suit because she has superlative taste and Ford is her favored designer.
What actually matters in the story, however, is that the heroine thinks men in evening wear are ultra-sexy, and this particular man looks fantastic in the Tom Ford suit because that designer’s clothes so perfectly fit him. In other words, the author told me what matters but failed to tell readers. In the narrative, we learn only that this suit is evening wear and the heroine notices. The salient detail isn’t quite doing its job.
The author solved the problem by resequencing the dialogue so that this bit of explanatory narrative tucked neatly between the characters’ lines: “Not a lot of men can wear Tom Ford because he cuts so close to the body. You have to be in really good shape and even so, his styling favors trim, long-muscled men. Which happen to be my favorite kind.”
On the store: “Bi-Lo is a Southern chain. Its mention adds verisimilitude to the story. Anyone who has been to the South will recognize it. And if you don’t, Google it. Have you not seen Piggly Wiggly mentioned in Southern stories? Or Publix? I read books set in the South often because I’m interested in the area and find these mentions all the time. I concede that adding more description could be a good compromise. So I could definitely say, ‘Bi-Lo grocery store’ and even mention she is taken with the difference in the names of the markets down there compared to home.”
Here again, the full explanation is too much information. Where Bi-Lo occurs in the story, the setup gives the impression it’s a gas station/convenience store, where in actuality it’s a grocery store chain where the heroine can buy stuff she wants and needs. The fact in itself is not important. But the store name broke my attention while reading because I had no idea what it was, and I was intent on the heroine’s journey and expected from the specificity of the name that her reason for stopping there meant something. Instead, it was local color. (And, as a lookup showed, it’s spelled in all caps.)
The author solved the problem with: “At a BI-LO grocery store, a chain we don’t have in New England, I picked up a few provisions for snacks and breakfast.”
Simple and unobtrusive, no need for the reader to pause and scratch head.
Because the author and I have worked together over many years, we both felt free to discuss these topics in depth. In the process, certain broader but related points came to the surface.
In one message she pointed out: “If anyone is confused . . . they can figure it out or not. Plus, if you read on a Nook or Kindle, you can highlight the word and look it up there and then, or, as I often do, use your smartphone.”
Ah—there’s some of the problem’s origin: What an author assumes about readers may not be true. Part of the transition between writing a story and selling it is making the psychic shift between author intent and reader reception. This nexus is the twitchy space that editors occupy.
Both editors and authors need to remember that, even in today’s tech-smart world, many readers still read print books, and have no interest in getting up from their comfortable chair, moving to their computer (if they have one—not everybody does), and going online to look up a curious detail. What a great way to break their focus on a story!
Some readers keep a notepad beside their reading spot and jot a list of new terms to look up afterward. That’s a good way to learn from novels. But not everybody does this. Other readers are happy to pause while reading to check something, while others let unknowns roll by. It all depends on the individual as well as the number of times they’re left in the dark.
An author has to decide which and how many of these occasions matter. My client made her personal position plain: “How did I ever learn much of anything? By finding words or objects I didn’t recognize in text and then looking them up. Thus, I feel perfectly comfortable with these mentions . . . We either skip over what we don’t know—nouns and verbs as well as others—or look them up. How did I learn what defenestration was? I looked it up. Fin de siecle? I looked it up, although I had to ask a French speaker for the correct pronunciation. That term is so much more descriptive than to say ‘the end of the nineteenth century’ because it describes a glittering lost world, totally defining a time and place . . . These descriptions, if you know them, are iconic. It’s the difference between someone having an iPhone and someone having an Android. A very big gap culturally and philosophically. I think it is okay for that stuff to go over some people’s heads and not others. Some people will see the word iPhone and think, mobile phone, and some people will see it and conjure the person (in their mind) who carries it—hip and pretty culturally savvy. Whether that is true or not, as a writer I’m using it.”
The last line exemplifies the author-editor relationship. Ultimately, the story belongs to the author and the editor can only query. There’s no right or wrong. But that’s what editors are here for, to check whether an element is a technical problem or part of the author’s creative voice. It’s all about confirming that authors are truly saying what they want to say.
So the takeaway is: Authors, let it rip during the draft. When you review your work, pause and consider each proper noun or specialized term. Your editor is professionally obliged to look them up if only to confirm the spelling; your readers, however, need to grasp the point you’re seeking to make. They want to learn new things and to learn about your characters, but they generally don’t want to work hard to do so. If you are using technical, regional, cultural, or other special words, make sure that somewhere close to first mention you drop in a phrase or sentence—paragraph, if necessary—that will put the detail in context. Your job is to keep readers in the story.
Editors, pause and consider each proper noun and unfamiliar term. Not only to confirm the spelling but to evaluate its universality. Does it support the story and enrich character or place, or does it come from the author writing too narrowly within their frame of reference? When in doubt, query. All that needs to be achieved is for the term to be thought about and an informed decision made about it. Your job is to stand in for future readers and help them stay engrossed in the story—to keep those “huh?” moments to a minimum.
Caroline Hiley specializes in copyediting novels and works of nonfiction. She works with both traditional publishers and independent authors.