“Lizzie sat in her Algebra II class, trying to pay attention to what her teacher was saying. But she could see Brad sitting right there. She tapped her pencil. Focus, focus, focus. She saw Monica waving to her out of the corner of her eye. Monica mimicked writing in midair with her empty hand. Lizzie sighed, reached into her pencil bag, and tossed Monica a pencil.”
Ok, so that’s a quick little moment that could appear in a manuscript. In these 66 words, we have three characters who we likely place in high school (Algebra II) and we have an idea that we’re going to explore some relationships between the three people introduced.
But what this scene lacks is anchors: specific details that more accurately place you, the reader, in the scene that I’m starting to unfold. Weaving in those details, yes, at the expense of beloved brevity, gives your reader so much more about the scene. Let’s see how.
I told you nothing about the classroom. You could have easily assumed a large urban high school with at least thirty kids sitting in rows of desks, or maybe a small private school with fifteen kids in a u-shape. Even a lecture hall with stadium seating and a hundred kids. Does it matter? Well, it can if the action of the scene is going to reveal information to you about the characters (and it should!).
I told you nothing about where anyone is sitting. How does it change your opinion of Lizzie if Monica is sitting at the desk next to Lizzie… but Lizzie tosses the pencil to her anyway? Is Lizzie maybe making Monica pay a little bit for being forgetful? What if Lizzie is sitting across from Monica in the u-shape, so she had to toss it all the way across the room to get it to her. Is Lizzie just doing what she can to get a friend a pencil? In both instances perhaps “Monica fumbled to catch the pencil” starts off our next sentence, but what’s our impression of Lizzie (or Monica)?
Let’s raise the stakes even higher. What if in my writer’s mind, Monica is two rows away from Lizzie – and the person sitting between them is Brad. That’s possible, because given my explanation you have no idea where anybody is. Now Lizzie is tossing the pencil to avoid contact with Brad. But why? This could have hooked you in as a reader, made you curious about their relationships, but instead it’s an opportunity lost.
It’s important to find the perfect word, or to leave out unimportant details. Does it add richness to know that the pencil was a #2 Ticonderoga vs. a blue mechanical pencil? Unlikely, unless I have a theme about using natural elements, or Lizzie’s favorite color is blue. We do need to be on the lookout for extraneous information that can bog down a story and slow the pacing. But when the writer leaves some information out – the setup of the room, the placement and subsequent movement of the characters – the reader is missing out. And as a writer who wants to bring you into my story and have you get all cozy and comfortable, so am I.