Wednesday, June 6, 2012

SNR: The story-to-noise ratio

Many temptations lie in wait for the novelist. One of the more insidious is the tangent. I recently read two detective novels by different authors that went on at length on topics that were marginally relevant to the case at hand, but which stopped the story dead in its tracks.

I call this the story-to-noise ratio (SNR). Like the signal-to-noise ratio in the audio world, which tells us how much music we hear compared to noise generated by the recording or playback process (such as tape hiss or the 60-cycle hum of poorly grounded equipment), the story-to-noise ratio tells us how much story we get compared to irrelevant rambling.

True, there may be a good reason to slow down the pace, perhaps to establish character or a sense of place, or any of the other little things authors do to keep a novel from turning into a screenplay. And to be sure, there is a certain amount of personal taste involved in determining the proper SNR, and I have a fairly liberal meter, as anyone who has read my novels knows.

But when you go twenty or more pages in a detective novel without anything of significance happening, the SNR is dangerously low.

In some cases the writing may be good but fails to move the story forward even a centimeter. Typically these pace-killing detours are some soapbox topic of the author or perhaps an attempt to get some mileage out of hours of research.

I have only one thing to say about this temptation: resist it. Do not succumb to the urge to spend ten pages, or even two pages, on characters talking about some pet topic, whether, as in the books I recently read, women’s fashion or gender roles or theology or clever but pointless banter between characters. Or anything else that doesn’t advance the story. And if you discover during edits that a passage of this nature has crept in, excise it immediately and ruthlessly, regardless of how much you may love it.

If not, you’re practically inviting your readers to start skimming, which is not a thing to encourage in your novels. Do like Elmore Leonard, who said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

If you want to follow rule number one of publishing (Write a good book) then you must pay attention to the SNR. More story, less noise.

Brad Whittington is the author of the Fred trilogy, What Would Jesus Drink? and Muffin Man.