The linen-scented blue liquid only just filled the base of the screw-cap, but this would be enough. Wasn’t this after all a high-efficiency front-loader? But she didn’t need an instruction manual to tell her what her heart knew, unlike years past when in her youth she would splash out a whole cup of detergent.
Its glistening glory dripped into the detergent compartment, and she shut it with a gentle push of her fingertips. Then with determination, she turned the dial to “Normal Load.” At that point there was no return.
With a soul filled with anticipation, she pushed the button marked “Start.”
Okay, so now you're ready to go do your laundry, but I'd rather you get ready to go write. So let's talk about details and at what point your reader stops reading and starts noticing that you're cramming every sentence with far too many of them.
Sensory experience is vital for your story. When your character eats a hamburger, he should get a couple of sesame seeds stuck to his fingers from the bun, and the pickle should taste salty.
But too much of that will garner comments for you like my agent left on one of my manuscripts: "BORING!" "Zzz… I'm going to sleep." And finally, just in case I was especially dense, "Why is this here?"
Let's start with hair. Your main character probably has hair, and you've probably described it.
Detail should be used in support of character. Have your character fiddle with her long black hair to show the reader she's nervous, in other words, but don't stop the story to say "Jasmine had long, black hair that she kept pinned back in a bun at the top of her slender neck." Fold the detail into the moment. Instead of saying, "It was windy. Jasmine had long black hair," then show that hair whipping into her face and her getting it out of her eyes so she can see again.
Also, lean on your reader's imagination. Most of us know what hair looks like and how it behaves. If you start telling us how it glistens in the sun, and what color highlights it has, and how her delicate fingertips fondle the ends -- we actually see it less well than if you say she could have her own L'oreal ad. (I don't recommend you actually do that, by the way, unless you want to see your work footnoted in fifty years. "L'oreal was a brand of hair products with an easily-recognizable ad series involving long, glistening hair. -ed")
Details used in the "wrong" way can function as the brakes to your story. But you know what? Brakes are good things. Brakes are necessary things.
Sometimes you want a lot of detail in there to slow down your character's train of thought. One of the above comments on my manuscript was in response to a character having gotten rejected in a really nasty way, and she was getting herself calm by very deliberately filling up a coffee maker, getting out mugs, getting out sugar, and so on. In this case, I'm building up tension in the reader by delaying the character's reaction to something you know she has to react to, only it's so huge she can't deal with it right now. It's easier to make coffee than to deal with having your heart broken, so guess what she's doing? And yeah, you can make heartbroken coffee. Just add a character who won't cry.
Moreover, what your character notices is going to give us cues to her state of mind. She may notice the coffee beans, sitting in the grinder, waiting to get crushed into an unrecognizable grit and then get boiling water poured through them to take out any value they may once have had, before they get tossed into the trash. Contrast to the character who counts out scoops of beans, thinking, "And you grew all that time and traveled from Sount America for me, just for me!"
The key is to give as much detail as the reader expects. The reader of a literary novel will expect a slower pace and more lavish detail; the middle of a combat scene is not the time to describe the way the eagle engraved on the main character's cuff links is gripping a snake in its left talon and that the snake is hissing; a character throwing laundry into the machine should not take 500 words to do so unless you're trying to make the audience giggle. And always, when you can, make the details functionally invisible. Don't bother telling us that the keys click on the blogger's laptop -- no one cares about that, and we know keyboards make sounds -- but tell the readers the keyboard chattered as the blogger pounded through a paragraph at a hundred ten words a minute.
Right now I'm rewriting a story that desperately needed a rewrite. A helpful critique partner pointed out that I have a one-page description of how a river meanders. We do not need a one-page description of how a river meanders. I mean, we need to know it because it's important, but we do not need one whole lovely, detailed, scientifically-described page of it. It's vital to the plot, and because it's vital to the plot, I need to get it in there without the reader feeling as if she's traveling every bend of a river in order to get there.
Oh, and now go do your laundry.
Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemy. She has four kids, three cats, two books in print, and one husband. She lives in the Swamp and spends her time either writing books or whacking ice off the driveway with an ice breaker. At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a distracted daydreamer and a gamer geek attempt to raise four kids. If you want to make her rich and famous, please contact the riveting Roseanne Wells of the Jennifer DeChiara Literary Agency.