We’re told today’s twittering reader has a short attention span, is easily bored. Stories need to be fast paced and not bog down in details. No Jane Austen ruminations or Melville’s descriptions of the whaling industry.
I recently read a book called Reading Like a Writer, by Francine Prose. The book was unusual as books for writers go because it’s basic premise is that rules are made to be broken. It tries to prove this by showing techniques in great literature.
Ho-hum. Yes, Crime and Punishment is great, but would it get published today? But one example got my attention–this passage from the first few pages of The Great Gatsby:
The windows were ajar and gleaming white against the fresh grass outside that seemed to grow a little way into the house. A breeze blew through the room, blew curtains in at one end and out the other like pale flags, twisting them up toward the frosted wedding-cake of a ceiling, and then rippled over the wine-colored rug, making a shadow on it as wind does on the sea.
The only completely stationary object in the room was an enormous couch on which two young women were buoyed up as though upon an anchored baloon. They were both in white, and their dresses were rippling and fluttering as if they had just been blown back after a short flight aorund the house. I must have stood for a few moments listening to the whip and snap of the curtains and the groan of a picture on the wall. Then there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young woman balooned slowly to the floor.
Lots of detail. But what have we learned from this passage? The setting is opulent, a playground for the rich (the frosted wedding-cake of a ceiling),but everything is insubstantial, threatening to float away. The two woman we are meeting for the first time (Jordan Baker and Daisy Buchanan) match their setting (as if they had just been blown back after a short flight aorund the house). And Tom Buchanan represents the lie of their flawed world, where luxury hides underlying discontent. His entrance deflates the illusion (there was a boom as Tom Buchanan shut the rear windows and the caught wind died out about the room, and the curtains and the rugs and the two young woman balooned slowly to the floor.) There’s trouble in paradise and we want to know more.
Try to imagine how you might impart this much information so early in the book, setting us up for the glorious illusion that is Gatsby himself? Could you do it in fewer words? Could you do it as well without details?