The Crime Writers’ Association

‘The Importance of the Note on the Fridge’ by John Dean

My house, like all authors’ homes, I suspect, is full of scraps of paper. Each one contains a scribbled note of something that I will add to the novel I am working on the next time I switch on the laptop.

The notes are often made after I have been walking the dog or weeding the vegetable patch and have had time to reflect on what I have written over recent days and find myself assailed by thoughts of how to improve the manuscript. They are usually small details rather than a major plot idea, things that will add a dash of colour to the book.

Often it is a line of dialogue that needs adding to a scene to better explain an element of the storyline that I am developing, or maybe something that reveals a relationship between two people whose association did not appear to exist but whose revelation is important for the plot.

Or it could be something about a location, maybe a distinctive part of a landscape, maybe it’s the make of car that a character drives because it tells the reader something about his/her personality or a piece of body language, a shrug, a raised eyebrow that makes a scene that little more real.

Each scribbled note is important because each one represents the plugging of a gap in the story.

Whatever is written on the note, the key thing is not to overdo the detail when it comes to weaving it into the narrative.

Sure, detail is crucial to any piece of writing but not at the expense of telling the story. Too much detail slows down the pace of the storytelling.

How many times have you read a passage and enjoyed the description of a landscape but find yourself growing bored when it’s still being described a page later?

Don’t get me wrong. Description has its place but the writer needs to always bear in mind that it’s there to do a job, namely to ensure that the reader can see what the writer can see.

The key consideration is that we are constantly being told that the ‘modern reader’ has little time for description, with the result that it can be overdone unless, that is, you are an author who is so gifted with words that lengthy description is a joy in itself. As examples, think sense of place and the brilliant crime writer Peter May and his richly evocative depiction of the Scottish islands or the magical Laurie Lee and his lyrical turn of phrase.

Similar considerations apply for character. The writer may scribble down many notes about a character  – the shape of their spectacles, the cut of their trousers, an episode in their past but the basic rule of thumb is to produce the right details in the right place and not overdo it, which particularly applies to a character’s history, known as their back story.

Authors need to be very careful with back story, because, for all a character’s history is an important part of what they are, every instance in which the writer takes the reader into a character’s past can have the effect of slowing the novel’s forward momentum.

One of the most common mistakes I note when I’m called upon to offer comments on inexperienced writers’ manuscripts is that they have spent too much time establishing the background to the story early on in the book, which slows the pace. Lose pace and you lose your reader.

In fact, there’s very little that readers need to know about our characters’ history from the outset that they won’t learn as the story unfolds.

By all means, refer to the past, slot in passages of flashback even, but, that phrase again, don’t overdo it.

So, before that scribbled note stuck to the fridge makes its way on to the page the author should always ask themselves ‘does the story need it?’ If the answer is ‘no’, as often happens, the note goes in the recycled paper bin instead!

You can find out more about John Dean and his crime novels here.


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