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
- 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.
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.
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.
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?
- Point of View
Let’s look at how to solve each of those causes:
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.
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!Pin It