From the editors of Critique My Novel:

        He reached his right hand across his body to slip it into the inner breast pocket of his overcoat. He frowned and withdrew his empty hand. His phone wasn’t in that pocket. Patting his outer pockets with both hands, his nodded when he felt the bulge of his phone in the left one. He slipped his left hand into the pocket and withdrew the source of the incessant buzzing. 

       Still holding it in his left hand, he used his right hand to flip open the phone. He stared at the screen for a few moments before closing the phone, as he had decided not to answer the call. He switched the phone to his right hand because he decided he wanted it in his left breast pocket. He then slipped it into the pocket inside his coat.

What is wrong with this paragraph?

First of all, the reader is bogged down with so many extraneous details of the manner of how the guy answered (or didn’t answer) his phone that any significance that could be found in the section is buried.

Anything that is given so much attention signals to the reader that it is significant. But when it turns out that none of this was significant, it can be frustrating to read. Show what he does, not every step he takes to do it.

We DO need to see that he took it out of his pocket, as opposed to showing that it was already in his hand, or that he had it hidden in his shoe. But we don’t care how he takes it out of his pocket, unless it is significant. (Perhaps we think he has a detonator hidden in his palm, and the fact that he uses the opposite hand to remove his phone would increase the likelihood of this. Or if we need to know his dominant hand… or if he is hiding this fact and using his non-dominant hand to throw off whoever is watching.)

Second problem: There are several places where the reader is told something unnecessarily. When he withdraws his empty hand, readers know that what he was looking for isn’t there. The fact that he doesn’t answer the call shows that he decided not to answer it. When he puts the phone into his breast pocket, we can deduce that this is where he wants to store it.

Don’t treat readers as if they are too simple-minded to figure things out. It isn’t usually an intentional mistake, but sends the same message—that you don’t trust your readers to pick up on all the nuances of what you are trying to show.

Those were the main issues I wanted to cover, but I’m sure we could come up with many more things wrong with this passage. Comment if you would like to add anything.

Here is a shortened version:

       He pulled the phone out of his jacket pocket, flipped it open, and squinted at the screen as the phone continued its incessant buzzing. With a scowl on his face, he closed the phone, finally silencing it, and shoved it back into his pocket.

What did you get out of this paragraph that is 44 words long, as opposed to the passage that is 137 words long?

phone          crazy            dude



Filed under writing

6 responses to “Details

  1. I agree. I like this page! Thanks for posting it. I’m sure I can learn a lot from reading its comments, and I hope that I can contribute to this blog as well.

  2. uh, the only problem is you are changing the whole scenario….the phone wasn’t in his pocket where he expected it to be… there would be a certain amount of frustration and or anger at not finding the phone where it should have been….especially if the character is a tad OCD.

    • That is a good example of how too much information can confuse the issue. Any event that is given extra attention will be assumed, by the reader, to be important. In this case, he was just searching for his phone. But since the search was given so much attention and detail, it gives the impression that there is significance to it.

      Thanks for commenting.

  3. What I get is from the revised paragraph is:
    – he’s annoyed by the phone call
    – he doesn’t want to talk to the person calling
    – they are apparently not getting the message when he doesn’t answer
    – they have been calling repeatedly

  4. Assuming that the point of the scene was to show the character deliberately not answering a particular call (which makes us wonder why)…

    “His cell phone buzzed. He dug it out of his jacket pocket, flipped it open and read the number, then closed it and put it away.”

    Two sentences. Out and done. 🙂

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