The late Elmore Leonard suggested writers should leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.
Great advice. But, the question remains, “What do readers tend to skip?”
As with most things, this varies by reader. In my previous post on this topic, I discussed readers’ tendency to skip overblown descriptive passages. These tend to be static and cause your story to temporarily grind to a halt.
Your main duty, as an author, is to deliver story to your reader. Anything that reminds someone that they are actually reading words on a page (or screen) detracts from the story.
I am a Beatles fan (he said, seemingly apropos of nothing). “A Day in the Life” is a wonderful composition that is actually a genius mashup of John Lennon’s drug-infused (“drug-infused” describes all of Sgt. Pepper’s, truthfully) “story” about someone who died in a car accident and also about 4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire, and Paul McCartney’s bouncy middle piece that reminds you that “Yesterday” was originally written with lyrics about scrambled eggs.
Here’s how Paul’s section begins:
Woke up, fell out of bed/Dragged a comb across my head/Found my way downstairs and drank a cup/And looking up I noticed I was late/Found my coat and grabbed my hat/Made the bus in seconds flat . . .
I have no doubt that Paul was writing from experience here. This is a mundane, everyday experience. I’m not even going to argue that it doesn’t belong in the song, because—in my arrogant opinion—this section makes the song better. It helps keep a song about an LSD trip grounded in some version of reality, at least until you get to the part about somebody speaking and going into a dream.
But . . .
You knew the “but” was coming, didn’t you? I’m not going to say that Paul’s song about waking up and falling out of bed wouldn’t have been a Beatles hit if it stood on its on. He’s Sir Paul McCartney after all. However, it would have been a less likely hit, I think. People don’t need to be reminded of waking up and personal grooming habits in a song. Someone blowing their mind out in a car or counting how many holes would fill Albert Hall is just more interesting.
There was a time, when readers were more patient and books didn’t compete with so many alternate forms of entertainment, when it was normal to begin a story with the birth of the protagonist. The story was about the character’s life and would document important events from cradle to grave. This was more popular during the 19th century, but I could name 20th century examples as well. John Irving’s The World According to Garp springs instantly to mind.
Here’s the thing. You can begin your story with a thirty-year-old character who just got fired from his job without mentioning the fact that he was once born. Readers will assume that he was born thirty years ago (if they know his age). They will also assume he had parents, went to school, had his share of childhood traumas, eventually grew up and got a job. The writer can skip over thirty years worth of history just by joining the story at its inciting incident. We assume Thirty’s termination is an inciting incident in the story because we’re reading about it.
The reader will never miss this information. Pick up the last couple of novels you’ve read. Odds are, if you’re reading about adult characters, the parents are never even mentioned. When they are, it’s only in passing, so you know that the captain of your space vessel was raised in a genetic collective in Montana and has five dads and three moms. That’s from James S.A. Corey’s The Expanse series, by the way. Sometimes, the reader never finds out about a character’s parents at all, unless they are somehow important in the story itself.
Story is constructed of scenes. The movement from one scene to another is called transition. In our previous example, The Saga of Thirty, we essentially joined the story already in progress. In literary terms, we began it in medias res, because everything sounds more intelligent when you say it in Latin. But, it could have begun like this.
Thirty years ago, on a hot and humid day in August, a child was born to Marvin and Millicent Stockcharacter. He was named Thirty after Millicent’s war hero father.
Today, Thirty was fired from his job at Amalgamated Whatchamadoodles.
The transition was from the thirty-year-old flashback to the story present. In this example, I represented the transition as a skipped line and the transitional word “Today” that leaps over three decades effortlessly. Since Thirty’s parentage isn’t an important part of this story, the modern author would skip the origin story all together and just begin with the adult Thirty, who we would assume had parents at some point.
Does the author need to know all of this skipped information? While some writers would disagree with me, my answer is “no.” Sure, doing character studies is sometimes a useful exercise to help the author find a character, to understand their motivation and know their strengths and weaknesses. The more real a character seems to the author, the more real they may seem to the reader.
I touched upon this when writing about describing characters in my previous post. I don’t think the reader needs to know all the details of a character’s life. Neither does the author, really. Both writer and reader can discover a lot about a character through dialogue and the character’s actions. You can judiciously weave in character backstory during a story.
John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee was chronicled in 21 different novels. He was a Korean War veteran (at least until later novels which suggested his war might have been Vietnam instead). In one book, it was mentioned that he was a college football star, a tight end, who was kept out of professional football by a knee injury. In another, he actually played professional football until he was sidelined by a knee injury. We learn more about how McGee obtained his houseboat and Rolls Royce pickup truck than we actually do about his past. But, he feels like he has a past. Maybe John D. MacDonald had a character fact list he was writing from, but somehow I doubt it. The evolving football career is a clue.
You probably know a ton of facts about your best friend, and certainly about your siblings or other family members. You know a lot less about everyone else, I’d bet. I may know where a coworker grew up and her favorite kind of music, or that she’s married to a man who installs lawn sprinkler systems. Maybe even that she’s a Lutheran. I didn’t learn all of these facts at once, and, even then, this represents the sum total of my knowledge. I know even less about the mail carrier on rural route 31, except that he’s a Dallas Cowboys fan and has an accent that’s from the other side of the Mason-Dixon Line. If I strike up a friendship with someone, I’ll learn more about them over time. As we develop a relationship. It’s okay to go ahead in the story you’re writing with the same wait-and-see attitude.
I personally subscribe to the author’s trick of knowing a secret about each of my characters that I never include in the story. It’s usually something embarassing, or scandalous, or perhaps both. Something the character doesn’t want anyone else knowing. Ever. I’m not even going to give you examples. Let your mind run wild. I’m not taking credit for the technique, but can’t remember who I borrowed it from. This secret knowledge makes the character come alive for me.
Here’s a real-life example of this technique. Bill Lawrence, who created the television series Scrubs, has always maintained that through Season 1 and the first half of Season 2 of that series, the Janitor character was meant to be a figment of J.D.’s imagination. Go back and watch those episodes and see if that doesn’t give you a different perspective on the scenes where the Janitor is tormenting Zach Braff. Later on, the Janitor interacted with other characters on the series and was obviously a real person, even if we didn’t learn his name until the finale.
As with Dickensian childhood backstories, other transitions in place and time can be handled the same way.
You should be suspicious of your own intentions if you begin a scene with the character waking up, yawning and stretching while looking out the bedroom window before heading to the bathroom to kick off the morning routine that begins their day.
No one cares.
Have I ever done this? You betcha. More times than I’m comfortable admitting. Usually it’s because I’m floundering to find a plot thread. Let’s say I’m writing about a character who is much more physically fit and active than the author himself. I could kick off a scene as in the following:
After his usual five-mile morning run, Steel Ironman wolfed down a quick breakfast and then drove to the office.
Or, I could skip all of this and just begin the scene in the office. Once again, the reader will assume that the character woke up that morning. They may not assume that Steel Ironman went for a morning run or ate breakfast—and if either of these are important to the story, I would include them—but they will definitely assume he woke up.
In most competently-written fiction, if we get details about a person’s morning routine or a drive from Point A to Point B, it’s because the writer is trying to communicate something to the reader. Maybe the story is all in the subtext. Steel’s partner Bronzie was just found dead in an alley the night before, and the scene is showing Steel calmly eating his Colon Blast cereal the next morning, when we know his thoughts are in turmoil. Maybe he accidentally knocks over his bowl, spilling milk on the kitchen table that drips onto the tile floor. Steel doesn’t react with any emotion at all, but doesn’t clean it up either. He calmly rises from his chair and leaves the room.
You see, this is how eating a bowl of cereal becomes important (even if slightly overwritten). Otherwise, it’s just eating a bowl of cereal. No one cares.
Many writers take the Show, Don’t Tell advice to extremes. For verisimilitude, they think, it’s necessary to include the mundane details. If a character is cleaning an AK-47, it’s necessary to enumerate every step, from making sure there’s no ammo in the chamber, removing the receiver cover by pushing forward on the end of the recoil guide and lifting it upward and back from the receiver, all the way to step 25, when you wipe down the exterior of the AK with a good lubricant to prevent rust and corrosion.
A little of this goes a long way. Maybe it’s necessary in a Tom Clancy thriller or some other military fetish literature. Otherwise, your best bet would be to summarize, which is certainly “telling” rather than “showing.” How would I write this weapon-cleaning passage?
Steel spent some time in silence, cleaning the AK, and he now wiped down the weapon with a lubricant to prevent rust and corrosion.
Maybe. I’ve never cleaned an AK-47. What I know about it, I learned from other sources. Steel Ironman knows how to clean one, however. No one would question that. In a similar fashion, I can have a character pilot an F-16 or hack into the NORAD computers without knowing how to myself. It’s simply a matter of including the right details for verisimilitude.
Telling is often preferable to showing everything in minute detail. It’s the difference between writing “We went to Target and bought a couple of new face masks,” and writing a multi-page, infinitely skippable procedural that begins with putting the key in the car’s ignition, turning it, putting the transmission in reverse and backing down the driveway to the street, applying the brake, putting the transmission into drive, stepping on the gas pedal . . . ad infinitum. Of course, I didn’t raise the garage door, so I just created an expensive mess. You get the idea.
This may fall into the category of a secret the character doesn’t want anyone else knowing, but it’s my secret to tell. And most of you don’t know who I am anyway. In thinking about writing too many details, I’m reminded that, as a very young writer, I wrote about characters having sex even before I had ever experienced the act myself. The details I included tended to be too graphic, pornographic even, and I thought then that they were necessary to prove that the characters actually did it. The way a pathological liar will pile on unnecessary details to try to convince you he’s telling the truth.
Now, if your intention is to write porn or erotica, then these sorts of details become more necessary. I suspect my own version read like an IKEA instruction manual, but whatever floats your boat. These days, I would include much fewer details. In fact, I’d probably end a scene at the first kiss or touch, skip a couple of lines and begin the next scene. The imagination is much more provocative than anything I would write, anyway.
Just like it’s unnecessary to list all the steps of a daily routine, it’s seldom necessary to write about your characters using the bathroom as well. If your character is shackled in a dank basement, you might mention the bucket provided by the kidnapper for the purpose, but that’s usually the extent of it. Using the bathroom is something everyone can identify with. If you never mention it at all, the reader will assume that your characters are still taking care of business off-page.
One bathroom-related caveat, however: You should consider the biological necessity of eliminating waste before you nail your character into a crate for an overseas journey to Borneo. Your reader will think about it, eventually.
In leaving out the parts readers tend to skip, effective transitions and summaries are useful tools in your personal writer’s kit. If you just wrote something that seems too mundane to be interesting—or, conversely, more detailed than necessary—consider skipping it yourself.