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February 20, 2014

3 Tips for Skipping the Boring Parts

Long road toward mountains in the distance with text: Skip to the Good Parts

I was going to rant about poor editing today, but I closed the wrong window in my computer and lost all 1000 words. *sigh* So I’ll try it again later when I’m not so sleep deprived from WANACon preparation. Instead, I’m revisiting a different topic today.

We’ve heard the saying: Life is a journey. Often this thought will be accompanied by “enjoy the ride” or something along those lines. And that’s great advice for life. But for stories, we want to “skip to the good parts.”

In our first draft, our scenes might include all sorts of boring trips to the grocery store or what-have-you. But once we’re in editing mode, we need to be ruthless and make sure every scene has at least three reasons for existing.

In addition, our editing eyes should also look out for sections that include boring styles of writing:

  • information dumps
  • “driving” scenes
  • hand-wringing
  • flat descriptions

I’ve tackled the dreaded info dump before, but let’s take a look at the other three problematic areas.

Problem: Driving Scenes

Check out the picture above. Long straight pavement leading to beautiful mountains. Great scenery, right?

Now imagine you were on your way to an adventurous mountain vacation, but before you reached all the awesomeness waiting for you at the destination, you had to endure a long car ride. Wouldn’t you want that part to be over? Add in some screaming kids in the backseat and you’d probably think any amount of money to pay for a plane ticket to get there faster would be worthwhile.

Stories shouldn’t create those impatient emotions. Eagerness and tension, sure. But boredom and impatience? No.

In a story, we want to jump to the exciting parts right away. We want to start with the mountain adventure, not as we’re packing for the trip.

The Solution:

Many driving scenes (or carriage scenes, or boat scenes, or train scenes, or…) are there because we started the scene too early. The solution then is simple: cut the beginning of the scene and pick up when things actually matter to the story.

Which would be less boring to read at the start of a story? A scene of a character driving to the mountains and thinking about how lucky she was to win the lottery so she could afford this vacation, or a scene that started with her arriving in the mountains that included a line of: Thank goodness she’d won that lottery and could afford this adventure of a lifetime.

The second option, right? Do we really need to know more than that? Do we care how she picked the lottery numbers, or how she usually bought her ticket at the gas station, but this last time she bought it at the quickie mart? No. Unless those aspects are a big part of the story arc, we just don’t care.

Problem: Hand-Wringing

Sometimes, driving scenes are a flag for another problem too. Driving scenes might be the backdrop while characters think a problem through. Internalization can be interesting in a story in small doses or when it’s immediately relevant to the action—but not when it’s hand-wringing.

We don’t want to read long passages of a character second-guessing their actions. Not only would paragraphs and paragraphs of hemming and hawing be boring, but it also makes our characters look wishy-washy. We want to see decisions and action after a tight examination of the situation.

This isn’t to say that characters can’t change their mind. After all, change is the foundation of story and character arcs. However, this “should I or shouldn’t I?” type of internalization is best in small doses.

The Solution:

Once we’ve tightened the character’s dilemma as much as possible, we’d break the remainder of their internalization into smaller chunks. I’ve spoken before about the “Two-Paragraph Guideline”: Mix action, description, exposition, dialogue, internalization, etc. every couple of paragraphs.

This guideline—not a rule—can prevent the tightened sections of introspection from feeling like hand-wringing. The key is making the action, description, dialogue, etc. that we mix in relevant to the scene so it adds to the story and doesn’t become another driving scene.

Problem: Flat Descriptions

Descriptions create a world within the mind of a reader and prevent the characters from being talking heads. Settings can make a story come alive with a movie in the reader’s mind. Or they can drag a story down, stopping the action in its tracks. What accounts for the difference?

  • Length
  • Relevance
  • Point of View

The Solution:

Let’s look at how to solve each of those causes:

Length:

Once again, the two-paragraph guideline can help. Four sentences (about one paragraph) of setting description in a row probably hits most readers’ limit. Any more than that and their eyes glaze over while they begin skimming for the next quotation mark, hoping for more interesting dialogue.

Relevance:

The reader doesn’t need to know all the details of the setting at once. We should tighten scenes by including only the details that matter and including those details only when they matter.

Point of View:

Most importantly, we’d use deep point of view as much as possible to show rather than tell the reader about the setting. Descriptions in deep point of view are automatically more interesting than omniscient-style descriptions because the details the character notices also tell the reader something about the point-of-view character.

As Janice Hardy explained in her guest post, deep point of view encourages showing. With the proper details, we can show backstory and character emotions at the same time we show the character interacting with and moving through their environment.

Flat Description with Shallow (or No) Point of View:
At the elegant table, the tan linen napkins sat propped above each place setting.

Deep Point-of-View Description:
She slid into an empty chair in front of a linen napkin. If only she’d paid more attention to her mother’s etiquette lectures.

Both methods create a picture in the reader’s mind with a hint of a fancy table, but the second option seamlessly interweaves relevant details:

  • character emotion (anxiousness)
  • backstory (mother was an etiquette stickler)
  • action (she’s joining this table)
  • tension (Will she embarrass herself during the meal?)

Those nuggets of information keep the information interesting for a reader.  We can’t skip that paragraph, or we might miss something important.

That’s the secret to a great story. Every scene feels like the destination, the adventure, the story. We care about every action and detail, and we’re never left waiting for the actual story to start or wondering why the author is rambling on about something like the preferred water temperature for lake trout.

Irrelevance of any kind—pointless events, circuitous internalizations, or boring descriptions—will pull readers out of the story. Make the actions, details, and narrative matter, and our readers will follow where we lead them throughout the story. *smile*

Do “driving” scenes ever work for you?  What makes them work? How would you define hand-wringing—how much is too much? Can you think of other flags pointing out problematic descriptions? Do you have other insights or tips to share on how to skip to the good parts?

P.S. I’m presenting “An Introvert’s Guide to Twitter” at WANACon this weekend, will you be joining me? If you’re curious, check out the free PajamaCon with a bonus workshop by Kristen Lamb tonight!

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24 Comments on "3 Tips for Skipping the Boring Parts"

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Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Yikes, when you mentioned deleting 10,000 hard earned words I cringed. I bet there’ll be a collective cringe all day today as people read this. I’ve had that happen before and it SUCKS. May what you write in place of your loss be TOTYALLY AMAZINGER than its predecessor 🙂
I have no tips right now off the top of my head, but I totally agree with you on making every scene count. And I love what you said here, “Stories shouldn’t create those impatient emotions. Eagerness and tension, sure. But boredom and impatience? No.” So true!
Best of luck on WANAcon!!! And have a great weekend!
Tamara

Sarah Hegger

A timely reminder for me as I am right in the middle of editing. It constantly amazes me how I need these reminders to keep the writing tight.

Carradee

Ouch on losing that post!

I find summation or indirect description often necessary when a scene needs a point-A-to-point-B transition, though scene breaks can also work. I actually have a fair amount of travel in some of my stories…but the travel isn’t the point of those scenes. There’s other stuff going on, and the important conversation, decision, or whatever just so happens to be taking place in the car.

On that front, I think Patricia Briggs does a good job of meaningful transportation scenes in her urban fantasy stories.

When looking at a (possible) travel scene, the thing to ask yourself is “Why is this here?” If there’s more to it than travel, and that other thing best fits or needs to go there…then you’re good. But if it’s just travel, maybe with a conversation or decision that could easily happen elsewhere thrown in, there’s a problem.

Just my opinion. 🙂

Amanda Martin

Heart goes out to you on losing the post, gutting.

This is a great post for me, as I’m revising at the moment. I do have driving scenes in my novels but usually to create that awkward tension in a new relationship. There’s nothing like the silence of a car journey to twist the stomach – for me, anyway.

Anne R. Allen

REALLY great tips. Love the discussion about deep point of view. Newbies have a lot of trouble with that. They think they have to put it all in italics. Makes me crazy. Will share!

Stephanie Scott

I remember reading the transportation thing in one of Donald Maass’ books, and in my head fighting for my (several) scenes that took place in a car. I think all of them eventually got cut.

Even now I think my current MS might have a driving scene; I know I at least shortened it but it will probably be cut entirely. though I do have a recurring gag that happens in the car which sort of means something to the story…then again, I am looking to reduce wordcount. Ahh, editing.

Serena Yung
Serena Yung

Ooh, I love your Two Paragraphs Guideline and Turning Flat Descriptions into Deep POV type descriptions tips, thanks!

Ah, if only Herman Melville read this post before he wrote Moby Dick. Lol! (I haven’t read MD yet, but I heard that it’s ridiculously chock-full of overly technical descriptions about whaling…Like your preferred water temperature for lake trout example.)

Linda Maye Adams

I just wanted to point out that sometimes writers think description is boring because that’s how we’re taught. Just about every how-to book (and for that matter, many blog posts) seem to automatically associate description with being boring, which can make it easy to think ALL description is boring. I ran into an indie writer who was told by his critique group that his description was boring, so instead of fixing it, he cut ALL out. I also hear many writers say “I don’t like description.” Don’t let that personal bias creep in, because it may create a different problem and cause your story to not have enough description. I’m not detail-oriented, so it’s a struggle for me to get it in, since it can disappear into generalities for me — but people do notice right away when I leave it out.

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[…] 3 Tips for Skipping the Boring Parts. […]

sylvia O'Connor
sylvia O'Connor

I gobbled this blog down. Thank you, thank you—–until I got to the driving scene part, then I balked. One of my favorite books begins with a driving scene, or so I thought until I went back to look see. Yes, the memoir “This Boys Life,” by Tobias Wolff, begins with a driving scene that is also rich with setting (not the inside of the car), action, back-story, and character development. What it is not, is boring.

I agree with the blog example you gave, that just traveling to a destination to begin a story is un-neccesary, but every college student’s mother knows the excitement of picking up that child from college. What you have in a car is a captive (trapped) audience; all kinds of writing worthy emotions, tears and laughter, and stories from home and school come flooding out on the ride home.

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[…] all heard the advice to only write the exciting stuff in our books. Jami Gold shares 3 tips on how to skip the boring stuff, and Robin Constantine shows us how to craft a love scene so it is anything but […]

seph
seph

I love your blog and this is a great post, but I’d just like to point out a funny problem that can sometimes emerge when writers cut out “driving scenes.”

Character A: We have to get to the reservoir on the edge of town! No time to explain why, just get in the car!

(new scene, at reservoir)

Character B: So why are we here?

So… I get that a “driving to reservoir” scene would have been pointless, but why didn’t the character ask this in the car? It always makes me imagine the characters sitting in the car in total silence, not talking, maybe fiddling with the radio a bit, until they get out of the car and suddenly burst back into expositionary dialog…

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[…] is the same reason we usually skip “driving scenes.” A character says they need to go someplace and they go. We don’t need to see the journey […]

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[…] 3 Tips for Skipping the Boring Parts. […]

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