When you work as an editor, you’re privileged enough to get to read great books before they are released to the general public, but it also means you see a lot of little things that you pray the writer will take your advice and edit out before the manuscript is published. One of those things is what I’ve dubbed “dropping.”
What is dropping?
Have you ever listed what your character is wearing? Have you ever noted a song from the current Top 40 chart is playing on your character’s car radio? Or the specific brand of beverage/food/car/video game the character is drinking/eating/driving/playing?
Most writers will answer yes to these questions, and might even be wondering why doing something like that is dropping and/or wrong, but the issue isn’t so much that the writer is using those things, it is that they use the descriptions and the brand names without really providing context to the story for the character. References should enhance the novel, but where writers fail is when they insert the reference without answering the question: Why is this relevant to the scene?
Simply saying Taylor Swift or Bruno Mars is on the radio doesn’t work, especially when the song doesn’t affect the characters. This is when it becomes name-dropping, and all you’re doing is creating background noise that doesn’t serve the scene. It doesn’t add, but it can subtract, especially when a reader picks up that book years after it’s published and hated the noted song. Instead of pulling them into the story, you’ve created a reaction that isn’t relative to the storytelling, and that can pull readers out.
So, how do you work it in?
Give the song context within the scene. If you have an indie-rocker character chatting with another character who likes country, odds are they would be debating the merits of their chosen genres, artist names may be given, but overall the focus is on the characters and what they love instead of a random artist the author dropped just to note what is playing on the radio.
Another example: if a couple has walked into a diner on Route 66 that looks like something out of the 1950s, there might be barbershop music playing. In this case, naming the music helps set the atmosphere or the mood of the characters. It completes the picture that the writer is crafting. Then, instead of a name-drop of some famous ’50s musician, you have sucked the reader into the ambiance of the scene.
These tricks also apply to when describing what characters are wearing, which is the number one offender I see. I know it’s easier to list what the character is wearing, but bottom line, who cares? The list of adjectives and clothing items end up being a disruption in the flow of the story. Instead of giving the readers a list, work in the descriptions.
Try something like this:
Emily walked in the front door and kicked her leg, sending her black high-heel sailing across the room. She slammed the door, hobbled two more steps, and did the same with her left shoe. It smacked against the wall with a thud, but the sound was cathartic after the rotten day she’d had. She lifted up on her toes and rocked back on her heels, stretching out the muscles in her calves. When she felt the tight muscles loosen, she shuffled her pantyhose-covered feet across the carpet, heading for the bedroom. As she walked, she tugged her dress jacket off at the wrist, and slipped her arm from the sleeve. It dangled off the opposite shoulder until she dropped it in the hamper near her closet.
From this, you get that she just came in from work, wearing dress attire, had on heels and pantyhose, and she’s had a rotten day. This works in what she is wearing with the emotions she feels and with the context of the scene.
Could I have said she wore black high-heels, a pencil skirt, a blue blouse, and a dress jacket? Yes, but then the reader wouldn’t see her frustration, or the desire to just cast off her clothes in an effort to cast off her day. The short list is the easy road, but I prefer the scenic route when crafting imaginative worlds.
Bottom line, if it doesn’t fit the characters or add to the scene, it doesn’t have a place in the novel. Don’t just drop the name because it happens to be what you like when writing. Make it work for the novel and reflect the character or scene appropriately.