I think one of the best ways to improve on your own writing, is by reading really good books. Even little things, like how dialog is formated. Unfortunately, I almost always forget to pay attention to those kinds of details when I’m reading, especially if it is a really good book. I get too sucked in. And on one hand, I’m not sure I want to change that. I kind of feel like once I start noticing all the little technical details of writing, I will never be able to go back to just being a fan and getting sucked in.
However, I have been trying to remember to keep an eye open for some of these details, and one really struck me the other day. Something that I almost always forget to do in my stories: include irrelevant details.
It’s little things, like how a character thinks how that particular shade of blue reminds him of his mother’s eyes, or little myth or religion things, like how a the sounding of a bell will remind someone how he was raised to believe that the sound of a golden bell will drive away evil spirits. The thing is, those don’t add to the story directly, so I don’t think of them. However, they do add a lot to the story indirectly, by making the setting richer. They make it seem like there is a lot more to the world than we are seeing, that the characters have thoughts and memories and histories that we don’t know about.
And really, that’s how a real person thinks. These little stray thoughts that don’t mean anything are always shooting across our consciousness for no reason. If I were a character in a novel and someone was seeing what I was thinking, these little out-of-context thoughts would be all over the place. So not only does it make the world have more depth, it also makes the viewpoint character more believable.
Finally, this technique can be useful in a more direct way. It’s a good way to introduce things that are important down the road. If a character thinks, “I haven’t had this much fun since Martha died”, then the reader can reason that his wife is deceased, which may become motivation for some decision later in the story.
So perhaps I should say “seemingly irrelevant details”, since we don’t want truly irrelevant details cluttering up our story. We want the story to be as tight as possible, with no wasted words. But every once in a while, a couple of these details sprinkled throughout the story can really add a lot.
So, in the future, remember to keep the irrelevant details in mind!