On The Horns of A (Coffee) Dilemma

Here’s the dilemma: as a writer, how much detail of your characters’ day-to-day lives should you include and how much should you just let the reader assume?

I’m currently reading the third book in the excellent Stieg Larsson trilogy: ‘The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest’ and I’ve noticed something that occurred to me in the first two books as well: his characters drink an awful lot of coffee.  It’s almost on every page. (They eat a lot of sandwiches too but it’s the coffee that’s really got to me).   

As writers, we assume our characters will eat, drink and spend a penny occasionally, in the same way that they’ll say ‘ah’ and ‘um’ a lot when they speak but usually, we don’t think it’s very interesting and therefore we leave it out! But not good old Stieg. And it’s not decaf’ or instant coffee either: it’s the real deal.  All his characters must be hyperactive insomniacs.

‘So what?’ I hear you say.  Well, anything that jars with your reader, pulls them out of the story.  Imagine you’re engrossed in a really good play and suddenly the curtain moves at the back and a gap appears. In that split second you remember that it’s all just make-believe. It’s the same when you read a book.

As a writer, you want your reader to believe totally in the imaginary world that you’ve created. If you do anything that pulls them out of that world (be it too much coffee-drinking, a phrase or word that you keep repeating, or an anachronism), then you’ve spoiled the effect – and you could spoil the whole book or story for your reader.   

Of course, the endless caffeine consumption isn’t spoiling the story for me, it’s just a little irritating. And anyway, who am I to judge? Stieg Larsson is Sweden’s greatest export since Abba. His books – published posthumously – have sold more than 20 million copies in 41 countries and been made into films that have grossed millions. And apparently his success has spawned a whole new literary genre of crime fiction from ‘up North’: ‘Scandi-Crime’.

It’s pretty impressive. And how sad that he didn’t live to enjoy his success. I should probably be raising my coffee cup in a toast to Stieg Larsson. As they say in Sweden – Skol!

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1 Response to On The Horns of A (Coffee) Dilemma

  1. I thought the Stieg Larsson trilogy was fantastic. I did the notice coffee and my other half has just pointed out that Lisbeth Salender seemed to eat a lot of pizza too. Maybe Larsson drafted the books during NaNoWriMo and put in the coffee etc. when he got stuck but wanted to keep the word count going!
    However, your point about not writing anything that will jar with the reader is a good one and something I will try and watch out for in the future.

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