How NOT to Entertain Readers: Toothpaste Syndrome – Drone on and on and on
There is a story-killer running rampant through fiction, and YOU can help stop it. I call it “Toothpaste Syndrome”, and it kills readers by boring them to death.
When I was a teen, I read a very popular horror novel. I was enjoying it until I came to the middle of the book where I found a handful of PAGES describing a tube of toothpaste. The author in question spent so much time on this toothpaste that I fully expected it to come back later in the book and kill someone. Was it poisoned? Possessed? Magical toothpaste from an underworld ruled by cavity goblins?
Nope. It was just a regular tube of toothpaste. By the end of the book, I realized I’d been duped by this author and I was suddenly angry. I’d spent my hard-earned cash on this book and then wasted my time reading about a tube of motherf*cking toothpaste—the same object sitting in my bathroom just two rooms away.
The problem wasn’t that he’d mentioned the toothpaste or how the main character felt about the toothpaste, it was the fact the author spent so much time and so many words on that unimportant detail. Why do I need to know that it has an intense minty flavor? Why do I need to know that the tube was this many inches long and the hole was slightly squished, making the toothpaste come out in an oval instead of a perfectly tubular shape? Why do I need to know the cap fit strangely, or that the toothpaste was stored on the edge of the sink?
I didn’t need to know ANY of that, yet the author spent an obscene amount of time talking about that toothpaste. After that point, I didn’t enjoy the book nearly as much. In fact, any time this author started to describe anything mundane, I skipped it. Skipping sections in a book makes it difficult to really get into a story. These days, I’ll put a book down if it even hints at Toothpaste Syndrome. That’s the opposite of what a writer should be aiming for.
Toothpaste Syndrome is the inclusion of too much detail about mundane or unimportant things, situations, or actions. Toothpaste, a pillow on the couch, the smell in the room, how a character goes from one end of the room to the other, etc. That book, way back in the day, was a rather extreme case of Toothpaste Syndrome, and the author didn’t do it quite as bad in other books, but he DID continue to do it. So much so that I stopped reading his books. I haven’t picked up a single one in more than 20 years. Even if he’s learned his lesson and stopped that nonsense, I won’t know because his wordy, boring descriptions of everyday objects and mundane stuff turned me off to his writing. It was fluff, filler, something to bulk up his book, and we readers KNOW when authors are doing this.
If that toothpaste isn’t going to choke the bad guy or smother your main character in chapter ten, don’t tell me every little detail about it. Focus instead on the real meat of your story. Answer these questions before you start describing something:
- Is this important?
- What’s your main character going to do about it?
- Does it affect the story in any way?
Will the cleanliness of his or her teeth really matter by the end of the story? Will the minty-fresh breath save the day? No? Then leave the toothpaste out of it. As an author, it’s YOUR job to entertain your readers. Ignore the mundane stuff and focus on the important details. SHOW us conflict and resolution, strong emotions, awesome scenes that touch the soul, and characters we love, hate, or feel pity for. Do that, and you will have readers for life.
**Charity Becker is the author of our top-selling horror/supernatural series “Presence” as well as several kids and family books. In addition to writing, Charity is a professional editor. She writes for video game companies both in the US and internationally. She loves chatting with her fans and meeting new people, so find Charity on Facebook!
Blysster Press puts the power and profits back into authors’ hands. 100% profits for authors, 0% for the publisher–as it should be!