Say, what ever happened to those immortal rats?
by Patricia Simpson
Details in books are like spices stirred into a delicious dish. They add flavor, texture, and heighten the pleasure of consuming a good novel. But woe to the writer who forgets her details (or as we call them in the profession: loose ends).
A reader will lay on the criticism if you forget to explain what happened to the loose ends, such as the immortal rats I once mentioned in a book and left living an eternal life in a Parisian laboratory. The rats didn’t serve any particular purpose. They merely inhabited the laboratory of my immortal hero and lent a scientific ambiance. In the back of my mind, I even had a very good explanation regarding the fate of those rats, but didn’t include it in the story because I ran out of time and space, and…well…patience! Because really—who would care about the rats, anyway? There was so much more important stuff going on in the book—love scenes, sword fights, and really good hair-tossing.
Gloss over a few details (or forget something entirely), and you will lose the trust of your readers.
Oddly enough, it’s the little things that’ll trip you up. Gloss over a few details, and you will lose the trust of your readers or frustrate them. It’s not that readers have incredible memories; they’re simply experiencing your book on a more immediate level. They might take a day to read a book that you spent months writing. Everything is fresh in their minds, ready to be counted and checked off as they turn the pages. The magnetic key card that fell on the floor. The sports car left at the airport. And yes…those immortal rats languishing somewhere in the depths of France.
If you don’t tell your reader what happened to the rats, they will start wondering just what those rats are doing now. Having immortal babies? Taking over the sewers of Paris? Eating eternal cheese? (Why not?—Velveeta!)
Once you mention something particular about an object in a story, you make it significant. Once you give a secondary character a name, the reader will expect them to reappear in the book. If you leave a significant detail hanging and never explain what happened to it, your reader will either shake his head and make disparaging comments to his friends about your writing ability, or write an unpleasant review.
How can you be sure to wrap up loose ends?
- First, join a critique group. They should catch many of the forgotten details. My group is constantly asking me, “Where’s the amulet, where’s the suitcase, where’s the immortal rat?” A critique group is your best defense against dangling loose ends.
- Use beta readers. I am blessed to have a friend who reads my work chapter by chapter and makes a list as she goes along. Sometimes I am amazed at what shows up in the comments. “Why is the red slotted-spoon on the list?” I inquire incredulously. She shrugs. “You made a big deal of its color in chapter three, so I thought it was significant.” Maybe other readers will think so, too, simply because of phrasing used which implies importance.
- Get an editor or find someone familiar with editing to read your manuscript. I have an ex-English teacher who reads my galleys cold. She has no idea what the story is about and reads it all the way through as quickly as she can. It is amazing what she’ll find. How many times can a writer use the word “strode?” You’d be surprised. I once searched for the word “moment” in a book I had written, and discovered I had used it 140 times!
Being cognizant of the importance you attach to mundane objects, the amount of time you spend naming or describing secondary characters and the length you go to describe a place. The more time you spend on something, the more weight it possesses in the mind of the reader. Writers have a great deal of control over the minds of readers. Make sure you wield that power to your advantage.
And hey, what ever did happen to those immortal rats, anyway?
© Patricia Simpson