Fiction’s Tips (#3): Skip it

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Fiction is a complicated mess more closely related to intestinal surgery than what they teach you in English class. It isn’t very often I dig around down there and come back with a fortune-cookie shaped nugget of wisdom to stand by. But here’s one realization that completely revolutionized my writing life:

If I’m not having fun writing it, no one’s going to have fun reading it.

Sometimes writing is a nightmare, and sometimes trying to break through problems will drive you crazy. Plenty of hard work all around. What I’m saying here is not meant to be an excuse for laziness. But if solving the hard problems isn’t half as fun as the agony of wrestling with them, you might be writing something that doesn’t need to be written.

I remember the book and I remember the chapter. Slogging through a scene that I just wanted to end so I could move on to the good stuff. About as frustrated as I’d ever been, I physically couldn’t keep writing. So I stopped. I went for a short walk and when I came back I deleted ten pages of wretched, drab sentences. All I’d been trying to do was get my characters from point A to point B. On my walk I realized something: I was the wizard in this scenario. I’ll just drop the curtain on A and teleport us all over to B.

And you know what? I didn’t miss those pages at all.

With the sheer bulk of interesting stuff in this universe to write about, it’s baffling how often we get caught up describing minutiae, or blocking our characters through a scene, or trying to cram every thought and feeling down a paragraph’s throat. We hate it, but we do it because we think that’s how it is supposed to be done.

Fiction writers can learn a lot from comics. There’s a phrase, “between the gutters”, that refers to everything that’s missing between one panel and the next. Though technically just a collection of static images, the experience of reading a graphic novel is full of movement because the animation plays out in the reader’s head, interpolated imaginatively in the space between panels. Adopting this concept can be extremely useful to the way prose writers work through a scene.

Here’s an example of a scene dense with extraneous blocking:

…as hungry as he was, he figured he could put up with a short wait.

An hour later his order still hadn’t arrived. He decided that instead of trying to complain again, he’d handle the situation in a more creative way. He slipped out of his booth and started roving around the diner. He found tables with plates that needed clearing and stacked them in his arms. He asked customers whether they needed anything else, wrote down their desert orders and drink refills on a napkin. Then, when he’d gone to ten tables or more, and his arms were full, he headed toward the kitchen, pushing past a confused waitress and opening the paper thin swinging door with his left foot. There, peering across his accumulated stack of plates, he caught sight of the most beautiful cook in a hairnet he’d ever seen.

There’s not a ton of detail here, but the problem is that there’s more than needed and less than is interesting. Writing a passage like this isn’t any fun for me, because it’s just a bridge to get my character into the kitchen, and as a writer I’m just a camera following him around the room. I could make it fun in one of two ways: I could expand on it, adding detail and specific interactions, turning the passage into a full and interesting scene in its own right, or I could cut the whole thing and skip to the kitchen, without any loss in meaning, and way more punch. Let’s look at this second approach, where the gutter is wide:

…as hungry as he was, he figured he could put up with a short wait.

An hour later he kicked open the silver door and burst into the kitchen. His arms were loaded with dirty dishes he’d collected from various tables, and he carried a napkin covered in drink and desert orders. He was just about to say something about how now that he’d taken care of the rest of the customers maybe they could finally get to his order, when he noticed the most beautiful cook in a hairnet he’d ever seen. 

This option is tighter, quicker, and dives directly into the dramatic moment. There’s also just enough information for the reader to infer what happened during the whitespace that brought the protagonist to the kitchen, what his problem was to begin with, and the peculiar choice he’d made to deal with it. The missing scene will play out in the reader’s mind without tediously dragging them through every step of the action.

Writing this way requires trust in your reader’s imagination. That trust should always be accompanied by hard work, but it’s the kind of work that focuses on the things that you’re passionate about writing, rather than the mundane clutter that a lot of first drafts tend to accumulate out of a misguided belief that the reader won’t be able to piece together what’s going on. Relinquishing some control by cutting away blocking and the overuse of detail allows for swifter writing, a more engaged and participatory audience, and ultimately less drudgery and more immediacy in engaging with the narrative, for both you and your readers.

 

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Fiction’s Tips (c) Fiction Clemens
Logo image by Freedom Drudge

 

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