Last week I talked about unnecessary content and scenes which do not drive your story ahead. This week I am going to continue on that theme because I cannot stress enough the importance of clarity. While a good structure is vital, don’t be in too much of a hurry, or try to race through to the end. Writing is a hike, not a 100-yard dash. Hiking means being able to take in the surroundings, enjoy the autumn colours, spot wildlife, and properly stretch your creative legs. Doing it at a flat-out run means indistinct settings and unclear description. By trying to go too fast, you risk missing out details which help to set the scene. It will not make your reader more alert but lead them to ask the wrong questions about your narrative. In turn, being vague or indistinct means you are leading the readers’ attention away from what they need to know about the story, and missing out on an opportunity to build some depth into your characters through observation of their reactions.
Look at the following examples from K.Weiland’s ‘Most common Mistakes’ post from 2011:
- Maddock looked at the wall, which seemed to be smeared with spaghetti sauce.
- The bomb fell approximately ten or twelve feet away from me.
- Elle was about forty-five minutes late for her dentist appointment when a cop pulled her over, apparently for speeding.
- Mark’s figures revealed that the addition to the house would take up roughly fifty square feet.
Do any of them really help you to set the scene or give the reader a feeling that they need to know this? Nor me. It makes me think this is just filler. Why is the author wasting my time in telling me this? Take out the supposition and the approximation, then we know that the information is important and we will probably need to remember it later. Being unsure of the measurement of the house could prove very expensive, but being definite about it has us asking, why he wants to extend? Is Mark trying to hide something? Is he building a secret den? We know when something comes out flat. It feels trite or contrived; as if it could really be done away with. Being vague has the same effect. If that information is important then the ‘seemed to’, estimations, and approximations need to go. Your author voice will come through the stronger for it.
Sometimes, however, you will need to guide the reader or drop hints about the action or something the main character has observed. There are ways to do this but many of them are wrong. K. Weiland has again offered us a handy list of words to avoid:
- Look as if
- More or less
- Give or take
Persuasive, and evocative descriptions are a vital part of any narrative. Being vague is apologising to the reader for knowing more than they do, or trying to point something out and trying not to sound too clever about it. Stop apologising. Your job is to direct the gaze of your readers. Do not hesitate to give a full sensory experience. In a crime scene, for instance, your main character would be looking for clues. Your reader will be asking what did the air smell of (decay?) or was there a lot of blood or how far the deceased’s head had landed from their body (have someone use a tape measure). ‘Seemed to’ writing will only serve to diminish their experience, as well as rob at least two people of the experience of imagining it. This is not to say that you cannot use metaphor to transmit your meaning, but be cautious. There is the risk that you, as a new writer, will be tempted to hold your reader’s hand and explain them. Don’t. If you have got it right, the reader will understand it. Likewise, if you show your reader what is there, then they will see it.
Sweeping statements and generalisation is another form of dithering to look out for, and eliminate. You don’t need to make sure the reader ‘gets it’. Long winded justifications of your action won’t achieve this either. By going around the houses in order to set the scene you risk boring your audience with the minutiae and they will miss things they are meant to see. It also hints that you are unconvinced by your own story. The message here is to slow down. Be bold enough to say precisely what you mean and what you want your readers to see. Your readers will thank you for it.
The advice in this post is just so marvellous I have just purchased her book on story structure and the accompanying workbook. Ms Weiland offers succinct advice not only on what to avoid, as well as why to avoid it and what it does to your narrative. I honestly could not have put it better. Rather than rehash the whole article I will summarise her main points, add my own input and examples, and link back to the original at the bottom.
Shall we begin?
The breadth of description required of written prose is vast in comparison with visual media. However, the author is both guide and gatekeeper to the narrative description, deciding what the reader needs to know and when. Authors are also human and, as such, we like to play with the details and show off. This is true whether we write for fun or publication. The fact remains that if we wish our writing to improve there are four habits we must consciously learn to avoid.
- Looking too deeply at the relationships between minor characters. However close the attachment, or tense the conflict, the relationship between the minor players need not get a mention unless it has an effect on the plot. if you want to explore it further you can always take a leaf out of the likes of Orson Scott Card (Ender’s Shadow) or Anne McCaffrey (Nerilka’s Story) who have written whole versions of their works from the perspective of minor characters
- Travelling filler and uneventful journeys. Don’t try to stage direct an empty theatre: you’ll bore yourself as well as your audience.
- Repetition of conversations already witnessed. Say you were at a party, but one of the guests was reciting back to you a discussion you had already heard. You’d get bored pretty quickly right? So will your readers.
- Information-dumping. If you have found out something really interesting, and you just have to share it, use an end note (not the same as a footnote). It’s what they’re for. This way, you can still demonstrate the level of research you have put into your book, but you don’t have to break your narrative, and the reader gets a choice whether to read the proffered information or not.
Unnecessary scenes damage your story in several ways.
- They bore readers. Just like the way an advert break during really good film right before the climax could put off a viewer and make them change the channel, an info-dump or disjointed tangent will make them simply put the book down. Worse? It could make them avoid your other or future titles.
- Misdirection for dramatic effect. Don’t be the taxi driver who goes the long way around just because they want a bigger fare (we’ve all met at least one). Your reader is your passenger. They don’t need to know what the field they are passing looks like, or what people are doing at the side of the road unless it has something important to do with the story (disposing of what could be a body?). Deliberate red herrings are an old fashioned, cliched device and have very much gone out of fashion.
- Derail narrative. On the theme of minor-character relationship-overshare: narrative prose is not the same as a TV program where all speaking-character relationships must be visible and clear from the off. Unless the feelings your main character has towards the ever so dishy, leather clad pirate (Once Upon a Time) have a bearing on the direction of the plot (they get there eventually), they need to be left out. In Speaker for the Dead, Novinha’s love for Libo (who does not take an active role and appears mostly in reference) causes her to lock her files and hide the results of her experiments for fear that he would make the same discovery that had cost his father’s life. In this case, withholding that information did not have the desired effect, but the story would not have made sense without it. However, it could have easily been overdone, and I have seen it overdone time and time again (*cough*, Sword of Truth Series, *cough*)
- Fragment the story and distract your reader. If a scene does not fit, it can wreck the whole cohesion of the book. Keeping unnecessary scenes is like trying to add extra pieces to an already completed jigsaw puzzle just because you happen to like the colour contrast. Not only to they not add anything substantial to the picture as a whole, but they can detract from, hide, or even break up the other pieces.
Here is how to avoid these errors.
Plotter or not, once you have completed your first draft (not before) you will have to go through your novel from the perspective of a reader, but before you delete anything, save your book under a different name (2nd draft?), that way if you want to recover something you have previously deleted and paste it in a later part of the book, you will be able to.
- Mentally delete them. One by one, go through and look at every scene. Can your story survive without it, in regard to character development or plot cohesion? If so, delete it. You don’t need it.
- Sweep for opportunity-darlings. Those little nuggets of ‘narrative genius’ that occurred to you as you wrote but somehow slipped past your mental outline-guards? Get rid of them. If your story can survive without them, in regard to the criteria in the previous step, then they are gatecrashing your party, abusing the free bar, and need to be thrown out. Hint: they’ll be more common in the messy middle.
- Good use of scene structure. Here, I refer you to Ms Weiland’s guide to scene and sequel construction which can be found by following the link below. You’ll also find the Amazon.com link to her book.
Most Common Writing Mistakes, Pt. 40: Unnecessary Scenes – Helping Writers Become Authors