3 Tips for Skipping the Boring Parts

by Jami Gold on February 20, 2014

in Writing Stuff

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 below - Time to Add your own.

Tamara LeBlanc February 20, 2014 at 7:31 am

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

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 10:47 am

Hi Tamara,

LOL! at “amazinger.” I’m totally stealing that word. ;)

Yes, I hope the post will turn out even better the next time, which is why I didn’t want to rush it with half-dead brain. I love WANACon but it kills me. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Sarah Hegger February 20, 2014 at 9:16 am

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.

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 10:59 am

Hi Sarah,

I know what you mean. My characters would ramble all over the place if I didn’t keep them focused. LOL! Thanks for the comment!

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Carradee February 20, 2014 at 9:36 am

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. :)

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 11:09 am

Hi Carradee,

Good point! I’ve written before about when telling works best, and as you said, transitions are one of those times.

In those cases, I keep the transition as short as possible. Often one sentence for the straight A to B and then fill out the paragraph with how the POV character feels about the new situation or something. I usually use scene breaks for that purpose, but sometimes the transition happens mid-scene arc, and I have to continue the same scene for its arc’s sake. :)

Good point too about how stories can have traveling scenes–as long as there’s a point to them and the traveling is just the backdrop to the story and not a delay of the story. As you said, the “Why is this here?” question is paramount. If the scene has those 3 (or more) reasons for existing I mentioned, then the setting is a side detail that doesn’t interfere with the storytelling. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Amanda Martin February 20, 2014 at 12:40 pm

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.

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 12:46 pm

Hi Amanda,

Thanks, I’ll live. :) This week of all weeks, I didn’t have the time to waste, but it was my own fault for closing the wrong window when being brain-dead tired. LOL!

Ooo, great example of how the setting–the driving scene–can add to the story. Awkwardness can happen in many types of scenes, so it’s not that the drive is used to delay the story, but rather it’s there to create more emotion. Thanks for sharing!

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Anne R. Allen February 20, 2014 at 1:03 pm

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!

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 1:07 pm

Hi Anne,

Thanks! When I was a newbie, I suffered from all these problems too–that’s why I’m able to identify them so well. LOL! We all have to start somewhere and for every tip we learn, we’ll be that much better for ourselves and for helping others. :) Thanks for the comment and the share!

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Stephanie Scott February 20, 2014 at 8:49 pm

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.

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 10:04 pm

Hi Stephanie,

I don’t mean to imply that we need to get rid of all scenes in a car. :)

The point is making sure that we’re not using the journey to delay the story. If the active part of the story just happens to take place in a car, that’s fine. As long as the setting, in a car, isn’t dragging out or interfering the action in the foreground, it’s not an issue. :) Thanks for the comment!

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Serena Yung February 20, 2014 at 10:24 pm

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.)

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Jami Gold February 20, 2014 at 11:35 pm

Hi Serena,

LOL! Yes, as we’ve discussed before, the classics are popular because they’re classics, not because they’d do well in today’s market. :)

We have far more entertainment choices–and far more books to choose from when we do pick reading for our entertainment–to rely on what used to work back when books’ competition for entertainment was seeing who could make the biggest smoke rings from a pipe (or whatever they did for entertainment before TV and the internet). ;) Thanks for the comment!

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Linda Maye Adams February 21, 2014 at 3:57 am

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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Jami Gold February 21, 2014 at 8:14 am

Hi Linda,

Ack! Oh yes, great point! Without setting or description, our characters are just heads floating in nothingness (also known as “talking head syndrome”). Readers want enough description to feel anchored in our world.

The trick is weaving the description in with everything else so people don’t necessarily notice it’s there. :) Thanks for the comment!

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sylvia O'Connor February 21, 2014 at 1:33 pm

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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Jami Gold February 21, 2014 at 1:49 pm

Hi Sylvia,

Exactly. I just used the name “driving scene” because that’s often the setting during boring scenes (and that’s what other writing instructors have called those types of scenes). But driving scenes can be the backdrop to the story–I have characters in cars in my stories–and not delay the story. If the characters are arguing or whatever and it just happens to take place in a car, that’s not a problem. :) Thanks for the comment!

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seph March 4, 2014 at 1:28 pm

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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Jami Gold March 4, 2014 at 2:03 pm

Hi Seph,

LOL! Yes, I’ve seen that as well.

That’s a problem of a poor transition in general. In real life of course, I’d ask that question before even getting in the car. ;) Thanks for the comment!

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