What to Put In – What to Leave Out?

When writing a modern-day thriller the story must be both driven and informative.

Firstly, as the name implies, the story must thrill. It should be a rollercoaster of a journey that keeps the reader glued to the pages and on their toes, encouraging them to look for clues and make assumptions. If, as the writer, you have done your job properly, the clues will be subtle, and in most cases the reader’s initial assumptions, although logical, will be wrong, leading to comments like “wow, I really didn’t see that coming!”.  The Thinker

Secondly, the story should be fast moving and not get bogged down in irrelevant detail. For instance, in a thriller the description of a person, place or object must be relevant to the story. Detailed descriptions of a person, their clothing and looks are all very necessary in a love story or historical drama as they add to the overall atmosphere and desire, but in a thriller every word written should drive the story forward and at a pace. Along with a character’s looks, their clothing gives us clues as to who they are and what they do, even before they have said or done anything. In the two examples below each description will tell the reader everything, they need to know about the character to form an initial opinion as to whether they are Friend or Foe?

“She was a pretty girl, tall but not ungainly, with a waspish waist and long legs. He looked at her feet, she was wearing flat shoes, probably in an effort to reduce her height, and make sure that her feet made it through her long shift.”

“Standing directly beneath a streetlamp, he made no attempt to hide his identity. It wasn’t the same man who had followed him on his first night in London. This man had no military bearing. He was short, probably not much more than five foot seven or eight. In his late forties and dressed in a non-committal dark suit that looked to be badly worn, and baggy at the knees. His hair was long, dark and wavy, and his face was tanned, but not as a result of spending too much time lounging in the sun. Jack guessed that he had worn his colouring since birth. He had the look of Romany about him.”

The same rule applies to your description of a place or location. It should make the reader feel either comfortable or fearful for the character.

“Standing at the entrance to Mill Lane, the narrow street that Mrs. Butler had directed him to, Jack stared into the darkness. It was more of an alleyway than a street, and it was poorly lit. Halfway along it, he found the “Rose” and looked up at the building. Even from the outside it was a disappointment.”

Up until now we have covered what needs to be included, but what about the things that should most definitely be left out? Of course, general descriptions of an environment are always necessary. They paint a picture, giving the reader clues as to what might or might not happen, as well as telling you a little more about the character. However, what you should avoid is making the description too detailed, and in doing so draw the reader’s attention to something that is totally irrelevant to the story and will never be mentioned again.

Jack looked around the small room. It contained a single wardrobe, a small armchair, and although it was currently bare, a large double bed that looked comfortable enough.   To the right-hand side of a tall window that looked out towards the river, was a narrow fireplace. Jack nodded his head. `This will do just fine.`

The above passage does the job it’s supposed to do. It reinforces the fact that Jack is there to do a job, and as a result he is happy to take whatever is offered, even rough it a little. But by adding just a few extra words you run the risk of leading the reader astray, and as a result they begin to read things into the story that aren’t there. For example:

Jack looked around the small room. It contained a single wardrobe, a small armchair, and although it was currently bare, a large double bed that looked comfortable enough.   To the right-hand side of a tall window that looked out towards the river, was a narrow fireplace. Jack stared at the officer’s sword that hung above it, and nodded his head. `This will do just fine.`

The sword is irrelevant, it plays no part in the story, but now, because it has been mentioned, the reader will be waiting to find out how and when it will be used. You may get away with something like this once, possibly twice, but readers will quickly become tired of being fed irrelevant and misleading information.

The simple rule is: if something doesn’t have a purpose, a significant part to play in the story, either now or later – DO NOT INCLUDE IT.

 

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