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March 1, 2012

Ask Jami: Editing Tips–Tightening Scenes

Tight hand squeezing a red foam heart

In my post last week asking if we can have too much voice, some great questions came up in the comments.  I decided to turn them into “Ask Jami” blog posts rather than bury the answers in the comment string.

Earlier, I shared ideas on how to use color-coding to check if we’re “overusing” a writing element.  Today, I’ll share suggestions for how to tighten sections that are “too long.”  (That is, sections that break the two-paragraph guideline to the point of negatively affecting pacing.)

As we discussed last week, the two-paragraph guideline suggests that we should mix up action, exposition, dialogue, internalization, etc. every two paragraphs (or so) to prevent reader boredom, pacing issues, and choppiness.  Note that the two-paragraph guideline is just that—a guideline.

Sections that go “too long” aren’t bad simply because they’re longer than two paragraphs.  A section longer than two paragraphs might work perfectly well for various reasons: voice, tension, unique information, etc.

However, when we come across a problem area, and our check shows a “too long” section, we want to know how to fix the issue.

Tightening “Too Long” Sections

We’re not talking about the micro type of tightening we do: cutting modifiers, repeated ideas, overwriting of details, etc.  This refers more to the macro kind of tightening—paragraphs or more—when we’re trying to fix overall pacing in a scene.  We usually see issues like this come up during information dumps of a character’s background or a setting description.

For example, in the comments of the post about voice, Amanda Byrne asked:

“I’m hoping maybe you can help me with the whole “two paragraph” idea. I’m in the middle of editing a WIP, and I’ve just hit a section that’s about six paragraphs long, and it’s all memory. … Any suggestions?

Amanda and I moved our discussion of her story to email, but I thought some of the general suggestions might be helpful to everyone.

When the Author Knows—and Shares—Too Much

When we come up with great backstory or world-building elements, we often want to include it all for the reader.  However, those sections are prime candidates for those “darlings” that need to be killed.

I once heard that when we research (or make up) details for our book, we should use only 5% of what we have.  5% is probably an exaggeration, but the point is that we shouldn’t be including most of what we know.

So how do we know what should be included?

  • Give details that are relevant to this story.

No matter how touching, how well-thought-out, how beautifully written the other details are, if they don’t play into the current story, they don’t belong.

Determining what needs to stay and what can go is a good first step to tightening sections that are too long.  If we hate the thought of killing those darlings, we can save them in another document for the “Extras” or “Deleted Scenes” section of our blog.  *smile*

When Dumping Is Easier than Weaving

But what if the reader needs to know this information?  If the information is relevant to the story, we have to introduce it to the reader without calling attention to it.  This takes more work on our part, however, which is why information dumps are the easy—and lazy—way to go.

Think of the kid who won’t eat vegetables.  How does the parent sneak the healthy stuff into the child’s diet?  By chopping them into little pieces and hiding them among the other yummy ingredients.  We have to do the same thing with information.

  • Turn info dump paragraphs into phrases woven among other elements.

As a simplistic example, we shouldn’t say, “They were in the bathroom. The knife fell.”  Those are passive/boring sentences that tell.

Instead, we’d say something like, “The knife fell to the linoleum, and the impact echoed off the shower tile.”   Then we have active, showing sentences that let the reader know they’re in the bathroom, all without coming out and saying it in a direct, boring way.

However, that technique of interweaving information and action can go only so far when we’re staring at paragraphs’ worth of backstory.  Turning all those telling sentences into active sentences within one section of a scene could result in clunky, forced action.

When We Forget that Patience Is a Virtue

The real cause of info dumps is that it takes work to weave backstory and other description with active sentences.  We’re impatient.  We want to get all that necessary stuff out of the way so we can get on with the story.

That’s a legitimate approach when we’re writing a first draft.  First drafts are all about discovery, discovering the story and the flow of scenes.  But when we begin revisions, we have to take a hard look at those info dumps.

The best way to interweave those details with other elements and keep the natural flow of a scene is to spread them out.

  • Give details when they’re relevant and not before.

We might think we’ve done okay with our backstory because we avoided dumping it anywhere near those important first couple of pages.  But then when a situation in our story requires some background information, we might think, “Woo hoo!  Now I’m allowed to share all this stuff.”  And we info dump to our heart’s content, believing the story demanded it.

Well, yes and no.  The story might have demanded some background information at that point, but not all of it.  So much of writing is about creating layers, and this is no exception.

In chapter one, we might mention that the hero has a bad relationship with his father.  In chapter three, we might reveal the detail about how long it’s been since they’ve spoken.  In chapter eight, we might share the words of their last fight.  Etc., etc.

It’s easier to write all that at once, but adding one layer of understanding to the story at a time helps the pacing.  And as a bonus, holding back those other details keeps the reader involved in the story because they have questions they want the answers to.

How we fix those too-long sections doesn’t matter.  What matters is that readers shouldn’t realize when we’ve included backstory or world-building details.  If they notice our spoon-feeding of information, the story isn’t moving forward anymore.  That’s bad not only for pacing, but also for the biggest reason of all: storytelling.  If we’re not telling good stories, then there’s not much point to anything we’re writing.

(Standard “Ask Jami” disclaimer:  I am not agented or published, so take all my “advice” in the spirit of me offering information to get people to think, and not in a “I think I know everything” way.  *smile*)

Do you use information dumps when you’re drafting?  How do you clean them up during revisions: deleting, interweaving, spreading them out, something else, or all of the above?  Is there one technique you feel more skilled with?  Or one you struggle with?

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What do you think?

31 Comments on "Ask Jami: Editing Tips–Tightening Scenes"

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Melinda Collins

Hi Jami!

I absolutely use info dumps when I’m drafting! I usually try to clean them up by simply deleting and shrinking it down as much as I can. My problem is that sometimes I don’t the reader will get the scene without more of the background story than what’s needed, and sometimes it takes a good critiquer to tell me that. However, I can say that I think I’m getting better at it. I guess I figure I’d rather the CP and BR tell me they need more background info in a particular scene than to have them come back and say, “Back it off! Delete! Delete!”

When I do make those big ‘cuts,’ I like to keep them in a word doc for ‘extras’ and ‘deleted scenes’ as well. But I will say that I do have those particular background ‘short stories’ that I write before the first draft, and those stay out of the WIP *entirely* (except for tiny pieces) since they were more ‘Melinda needs to get-to-know her character first’ stories. 🙂

Roxanne Skelly
Roxanne Skelly

I find I tend to shy away from info dumps during my first draft, probably ’cause I hate them so much. I have put them into a separate file, and pick and choose once in awhile.

My biggie is wandering into unnecessary dialog.

Renee Schuls-Jacobson

Another reason to love you.

Will you be my beta reader? One day? I’ll let you kill all my little darlins. Maybe. 😉

Great post!

Alessa Hinlo

Great tips!

Jennifer Tanner

Hello Jami!

I want my characters to be well-developed so I end up creating massive back stories for them. I’ve learned to pare it down to keep it pertinent to the scene. It’s a fine balance…keeping the reader interested while giving them just enough information so they won’t be tempted to go back and re-read pages thinking they’ve missed something. That really kills the pacing.

Donna Hole
Donna Hole

I have a womens fiction novel that is 118k because I’ve put so much backstory into the writing. I know I need to cut out about 90k, but I haven’t settled down for revision enough to know what is “relevant” and what I just enjoyed writing.

It is shelved while I grow some distance from the story and can have those “what was I thinking” moments 🙂

………dhole

shah wharton

I did an SOS post on this a few weeks back because I was in a crisis. My pro tag has a LOT of background all of which is pertinent to the story, but I’d plonked it all within the first third of the book – it was so grotesquely ugly I found myself feeling nauseous each time I opened the file. Most of it went the way vomit – flushed down the loo – some was saved and some even remains. I know during beta-reading rounds and edits it will shrink beyond recognition. Then the book will be so much better. 🙂 Great post. X

Buffy Armstrong

I used to do a lot of info dumping in my first drafts. I mean A LOT. I would write pages upon pages of the nonsense. Now that I’m a little older and I hope a little wiser, my first drafts are much leaner, almost too lean. I’ll find a happy medium some day. When I’m revising I try to leave little nuggets of info so the reader wants more. I like to make sure that I end a chapter with the reader having questions. Why does her mother hate her so much? Why is so and so afraid of him? Why did he steal that? Whether I’m successful with this remains to be seen!

Brock Heasley

I had an issue like this with my memoir. The first chapter was, essentially, an info dump about my father. It was the absolute worst, most cliched way to start the book. But the info was important so I did exactly as you say–I took the info and sprinkled it throughout the book. Dad’s biographical details now only show up when relevant, and no other.

These are some fantastic tips.

Jemi Fraser

Great advice. In the first story I wrote seriously, I finally realized the entire first 2 chapters were nothing but backstory. Writing them out helped me get to know the characters, but didn’t really serve any other purpose. It was hard to cut them, but well worth it!

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[…] we’re using all the various writing elements.  Next week, I’ll give suggestions on what to change when we need to fix sections that go on too long (and have pacing issues as a […]

Serena
Serena

I agree that you shouldn’t info dump for fear of boring the reader, but what if there’s an elaborate theory, or philosophy, that you have to present to the reader all in one go? What if you don’t want the big theory (which is absolutely necessary to the story) to be scattered here and there, and want it to be delivered in one long, coherent section?

My story had such a theory/ philosophy. I tried to make it more interesting by having one character ask questions and the other answering and illuminating the theory. In other words, I communicated this theory in a Socratic dialogue. One of my readers absolutely adored this theory (though maybe because of the content, not because of the style I conveyed it), but another reader said she liked it but would prefer it if I made it sound less like a catechism.

Any suggestions?

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[…] Editing Tips on Tightening. […]

Claudia
Claudia

That was great info. What’s the best way you’ve found to keep up with all the bits you have given? What the other character knows? What the reader knows? Thanks

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[…] in external actions.  Remember the two-paragraph guideline? (I blogged about the how and the what of the guideline as well.)  Avoid sequels with several paragraphs all in the character’s […]

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[…] Tighten your scenes for a page-turning pace with Jami Gold | link […]

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[…] 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 […]

Catherine E Franz
Catherine E Franz

Thank you for this post. I realized I needed a psychological change. I always thought of my first writings as first drafts and struggled afterward with revisions. However, after reading this I now understand that my first writings are info dumps and are not first drafts. With this shift in perspective I now understand, at least for me, I have several writes that come before first drafts. At this point, I have redivided into the following:
1. Info dumping
2. Discovery
3. First draft

Discovery, the 2nd part of the beginning process is something I need to think further on. At first I thought info dumping was the same as discovery; however, I’m not absolutely sure but my intuition says it is not. Discovery is…reviewing the info dumping, pulling out the pertinent areas/words/info, maybe into an outline, maybe not, organizing it in some way to prepare it for the first draft writing.

I’m great on info dumping. Have that part down pat and have stacks showing this. However, discovery isn’t something I have really thought about until about a week ago and I’m struggling with it but learning with it as well. I look forward to this part of my growth as a writer.

Thus, thank you!

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