As I read IF SONS, THEN HEIRS by Lorene Cary, I was struck by the number of nonessential but delightful details and moments that were woven into the story without ever bogging it down. I call these details "nonessential" because each one individually could have been omitted without losing crucial story information. Yet they aren't the pointless, boring descriptions I railed against in a recent review and column. These are specific, compelling little pieces of narration and dialogue that enrich the world. They make the characters more identifiable and the situations more believable, and they never last long enough to detract from the plot's momentum.
I'll give an example, though I'm not sure it's meaningful out of context. In one scene, a boy interrupts a serious conversation between adults to pester his dad about soda. In the next scene, an elderly relative scolds the boy about the way he's throwing away the soda cup. There's nothing important about the soda, and what's shown about the characters in these interactions isn't substantial new information. It all could have been cut without impacting the story. But there are subtle reasons for including the soda: The interruption makes the serious conversation more palatable for both the characters and the reader, and the boy's realistic behavior adds credibility to a novel that's partly about raising children. None of these purposes stick out. On the page, it all blends naturally into the action.
I wish I was capable of analyzing exactly how Cary achieved the proper effect so that I might offer some writing advice more useful than "Include the right amount of detail." I'll try to expand a bit: First, notice when you've included details that don't directly move the story forward. Next, don't edit out all of them.
I have a rather spare writing style and a tendency to expunge any line that I can't justify as serving a clear and necessary purpose. In revision, I agonize over the revealing but tangential moments, fearful that I love them too much to impartially judge whether they are superfluous. IF SONS, THEN HEIRS served as a good reminder that some of my beloved nonessential details may still have a place in my novel.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ Nathan Bransford deconstructs How to Craft a Mystery in a Novel: "A character's desire + Consequences/stakes + Obstacles + Delay = Mystery"