Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Tips for Writers - Walking the Dog

You don't have to be a professional writer to put Tips for Writers into practice.

I attached the leash to Lady's collar, but before I picked up the other end, Mother's dog, Beau, snatched it up in his mouth. Quietly, and with the attitude of one who is older and wiser, he led Lady to the door. Mother pushed the screen open and Beau guided Lady down the steps of the old house. We watched in amusement as Beau walked Lady down the sidewalk to the end of the block, turn around, and prance home like a tour guide leading  a visiting sightseer.

I recalled this scene the first time I heard someone use Walking the Dog as a writing term. I don’t remember where I was when I first heard this, but I do remember being totally confused. I read back over the passage being discussed and couldn’t find mention of a dog, much less anyone walking a four-legged mutt.

But as I listened, I realized the speaker wasn’t talking about a canine, but about details. Too much detail, including everything the character is doing, whether it relates to the story or not, is boring. It can bog down a story faster than a frisky greyhound and makes your writing sound amateurish. Walking the dog usually happens when the author tries to give a blow-by-blow account of the character’s day. Some things that happen to the character simply are not relevant to the story.

If you’ve been writing very long, you’ve probably read or been told that good writing incorporates details. While that is true, the details have to be pertinent to the story. Unimportant details make the reader ask, “who cares.” And if your reader doesn’t care, he’ll soon put your book down.

Tight writing means only including the details, the events, the happenings that are relevant to the problem or situation your character is facing. When adding information to a scene or chapter, ask yourself if the story would be unclear if you left that particular detail out. If the answer is no, chances are you don’t need those extra words. 

If you, as the author, believe that a detail is important, be sure your reader eventually knows why it is important. Will the detail later provide a motive for the way your character acts or reacts? Will it set the foundation for an upcoming event? If the information you are trying to convey is just filling time for your character, you are probably walking the dog.