When writing a short story, don’t add window dressing unless the draperies open and close.
I’m talking about utility characters. You know: the diner waitress who delivers the detective’s coffee. His reaction to her tight skirted pink uniform may help to define the detective’s character as she sways past to refill the cream, but the reader doesn’t need to know one-time-cheerleader Gloria Harris of 1045 East Hastings Drive depends on tips to feed her three children and aged mother unless Gloria reappears later as the prime suspect in her ex-husband’s murder.
A utility character has one task—to move the story along. The dusting parlor maid might be the reason the heroine and her love interest take refuge in the library for a moment of conversation that ends in unplanned passion, but we don’t need to know her name, description, or history. She doesn’t deserve that much notice. She’s done her job and received the reader’s absentminded nod.
Not only don’t utility characters deserve more attention, but if you spend words on them the reader will want to know why you haven’t bothered to finish their story when they disappear without another mention. The reader subconsciously stores information and will hate a tale that that makes him feel toyed with. So type-cast these animated bits of scenery, let them do their thing, and move on.
That said, if one day the protagonist declares, “The butler did it,” all hell breaks loose. An out of the blue reveal will annoy. With four simple words, readers are thrown into a frenzy: “What did I miss?” they demand. A good writer leaves clues, the subtle, forehead-smacking hints that slip past but are so obvious in retrospect. As a reader, I would much rather miss the smirk in paragraph 3 than be taken by complete surprise fifteen hundred words later. I don’t mind being fooled as long as there was a fair chance for me to have solved the riddle had I been more observant.
By all means, set your story’s mood with cardboard extras. But don’t clutter your work with irrelevant character details.
N.K. Wagner is executive editor and publisher of Page & Spine.