This post is another in a series based upon Elmore Leonard’s advice to refrain from writing the parts that readers tend to skip. In previous posts, I talked about excessive and/or unnecessary description, pointless transitions and bathroom breaks, and dialogue.
Initially, I couldn’t believe that some readers skipped dialogue, but it seems to be true.
I’m returning to the well a final time because, while I feel I’ve touched upon these topics in my previous posts, I haven’t discussed them to my satisfaction. These are important enough issues that I feel that they merit a post of their own.
Skipping unnecessary scenes seems like common sense advice, doesn’t it?
The scene is the building block of all storytelling. Putting this into terms that I can relate to, let’s consider an episode of the classic Star Trek from the late 1960s.
The normal teaser scene, which sets up the action of the episode prior to the first commercial break, was typically set on the bridge of the USS Enterprise. I’m betting that you can see that set with your mind’s eye right this moment. If not, go watch some television. Among the characters who may have been a part of the scene: Captain James T. Kirk, Mr. Spock, Sulu, Chekov, and Uhura. It seems like Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy and Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott spent a lot of time on the bridge as well. The purpose of the teaser was to set up the parameters of the episode’s story.
I know you can come up with examples of Star Trek TOS episodes that didn’t start this way. But, trust me, it’s the same idea. Just go along with me here.
Here’s the Captain’s Log for the first-season Trek episode “The Galileo Seven.”
“Captain’s Log, stardate 2821.5. En route to Makus III with a cargo of medical supplies, our course leads us past Murasaki 312, a quasar-like formation. Vague . . . undefined. A priceless opportunity for scientific investigation. On board is Galactic High Commissioner Ferris, overseeing the delivery of the medicines to Makus III.”
The scene goes on to establish that Kirk is sending a shuttle into the quasar, against the wishes of Ferris, who seems to think getting medicine to sick people is more important (the cad). The rest of the episode is about everything that goes wrong on the mission and how everything is made right again by the end of the episode.
The first test a scene must pass is whether or not the story works without it. A television series is different from a novel or a short story in that sometimes the episodes are a bit formulaic because the viewer finds it comforting and because a standard act structure makes it easier to insert commercials to pay for it all. In some series using the teaser format, the contents of the opening scene have no bearing at all on the story that follows. Go back and watch Cheers for examples. Many of the teasers were pretty well interchangeable.
You could argue that this episode could have just begun with the emergency landing of the Galileo Seven on the planet Taurus II. But, then we would have had to be told (or shown in flashbacks) what events led to that point. I’ve read and seen plenty of stories that began in the middle of the action and then gave backstory later on. In either case, the information in the opening scene would have been necessary at some point.
However, if all that happened in the teaser was that McCoy walked onto the bridge, insulted Spock’s Vulcan heritage and pointy ears for no particular reason, while Yeoman Rand flirted shamelessly with Kirk, and Chekov and Sulu sang bawdy sea chanteys, and nothing else happened, this would not be a necessary scene.
Or would it?
Something strange is going on in this teaser I just imagined, which makes it sound like some sort of alien pathogen or the work of one of the many beings with godlike powers in the Trek universe. Maybe I should continue to watch to see how the mystery gets solved.
Do you, Geordi?
Even though I was trying to write an utterly unneccessary scene, my brain immediately began wondering if there was a reason for these pointless things occurring. That’s the way our brains work. We’re wired for story. If the writer is giving us a scene, we immediately consider it important to the story. There is power in this, but it is a power than can be easily abused.
Some of us prefer to rely on our intuition when writing stories, writing by the seat of our pants rather than by plotting carefully. We are inundated with stories from an early age, whether through reading prose, comic books, or watching television and movies. There seems to be an instinctive structure to a story, one that can sometimes be bent a little but rarely broken. Many of us demonstrate an innate ability to tell stories, either aloud or on paper.
Some writers claim that they are at their best when they don’t know ahead of time what’s going to happen next. I personally doubt that this is true. It’s more likely that they edit themselves a lot while they are writing, or else have to go back to their first drafts later and radically re-write it. Or, they’ve watched so much television and movies, and have read so many novels, that they are plotting their stories on a near-subconscious level.
I’ve written without plotting beforehand and generated a lot of good pages, but rarely a good story. On the other hand, I’m not Stephen King or Lawrence Block.
I played a lot of tennis when I was younger, but I’m no Roger Federer, either.
If I’m writing a scene, I have to question why the scene deserves to exist. True, it’s important that Miss Scarlett is introduced at some point because she’s important to the story in the final act, but is it necessary to introduce her in Chapter 2, in a scene where nothing else happens except for the introduction of Colonel Mustard to Miss Scarlett?
This scene is 1250 words—five double-spaced pages in 12-point type—and has lush descriptions of Miss Scarlett’s vast estate, with its gardens, koi ponds, Japanese footbridges, gazebos and pergolas, as well as the hedge maze, Olympic-size swimming pool, tiered fountain in the circular front drive, and immaculate tennis courts and helipad. Colonel Mustard also caught a glimpse of the water beyond the main house itself, the lake that gave the town its name (or vice versa, who knows?), with the boat house and pier. Then I describe, in lavish detail, the interior rooms in all their grandeur.
After writing the scene, I feel like I have created a masterpiece.
Then, in a novel that has about 100 separate scenes, we never have another scene set at Miss Scarlett’s estate. By spending all this time there, I’ve unintentionally promised the reader that it was an important location in the story. It’s not. While it is true that the writer of fiction is one of God’s liars, our lies have to serve the story, not sabotage it. Chekhov (Anton Chekhov, not Pavel Chekov) once wrote something like (paraphrasing here) if you show a firearm in the first act, it better be fired by the third act.
In Stephen King’s wonderful early novel The Shining, the topiary animals were introduced early in the book. They became scary later. Set up. Payoff. In A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin has the lead male character behead a criminal in an early scene of the novel. Guess what happens to this character later in the story? Is it really a spoiler at this point? Chop. Set up. Payoff.
In the Miss Scarlett scene I imagined above, I created a false expectation in the reader. I was saying: look at this great setting; something important is going to happen here later. In J.J. Abrams’ terms, I set up a Mystery Box that had nothing in it. Maybe it’s not important for the reader to “see” Miss Scarlett until she arrives at Mr. Boddy’s house for his big shindig and unavoidable murder. We can have a couple of characters talk about her in an earlier scene so that we’re expecting her, maybe, but her grand entrance would be at the party. No one cares what her house looks like.
Let me give you another example. As of the day I’m writing this post, I’ve watched twenty-two of the thirty episodes of the original Twin Peaks series, two seasons which aired in 1990-91. This series has been lousy with unneccessary scenes, which are like jokes that have been expertly set up, only with the punchlines left out.
Here’s one of many.
Deputy Andy Brennan sees the phone number for Lucy Moran’s sister and brother-in-law on her desk. When he calls the number, he’s connected to an abortion clinic, which concerns him because Lucy is pregnant, and he may be the father.
Good stuff, right? Interesting, compelling, and seeming to require some sort of reaction scene. The reaction never comes. Lucy returns from her trip, still pregnant, and she’s brought her sister back with her for at least one episode. Andy never mentions the abortion clinic to Lucy.
I felt cheated.
I could mention Cooper’s visions about the Giant and the Red Room, or Donna Hayward’s scene with Mrs. Tremond and her magician grandson who does a neat trick with creamed corn, or a dozen other things I’m still counting upon being explained during the next eight episodes. What about the senile room service waiter? Or the Horne brothers flashback about the babysitter who entertained them by dancing with a flashlight? “Fire. Walk with me.” “The owls are not what they seem.” The freakin’ domino tiles. I suspect that some story threads will remain untied.
As a viewer I find this frustrating. As a reader, when I encounter similar scenes, I experience the same frustration. Anything you provide a setup for must have a payoff. This doesn’t mean you can’t set up false expectations on purpose, but the payoff in those instances will be the reader or characters learning that they were mistaken or fooled or whatever. But, if a character dialing an abortion clinic is important enough to include in a scene, it must play a part in the story at some point.
As a reader, you assume every scene is important. As a writer who doesn’t plan ahead, you may think a scene is important when you write it, but things don’t pan out as expected. You may tell yourself that’s okay, I’ll fix those things in the next draft. If that’s a necessary part of your process, I understand that.
I maintain a certain childlike naiviety that keeps me youthful. The first time I watched the television series Lost, I believed that the writers had an intricate plan for the story and that everything would eventually be explained to me in a way that I could understand it.
After a finale episode that most people found less-than-satisfying, I found myself watching the series again, this time with my wife. By the end of my second viewing of the first episode, I thought it should have been obvious that these guys were making everything up as they went along.
A polar bear on a tropical island and something that may be a dinosaur shaking the palm trees in the distance. That’s something I could imagine throwing out in a story brainstorming meeting. It’s a variation on Raymond Chandler’s advice to send in a man with a gun.
Exciting stuff, a genuine mystery. I liked it, and I’ll give the series credit for attempting to explain each mystery it introduced. But, when there were answers, I discovered that I preferred the not-knowing.
False cliffhangers and empty mystery boxes are just bad writing.
Any scene that has one character explaining everything that the reader already knows to another character is also unneccessary. Or a scene that is merely a repeat of an earlier scene.
I understand using repetition for effect, but I’m talking about something else, such as a series of police interviews. Let’s say that your detective interviewed ten different people, witnesses and suspects alike. Maybe there’s one interview that netted some valuable information, while the other nine were dead ends. The one interview is the one that will become a scene. The others may be referred to or summarized, but it’s not necessary to dramatize those that didn’t help the investigation. If you include a scene with one of those “dead end” interviews, you ought to have a good reason for doing so. Perhaps there is a clue in the interview that won’t be clear until later in the story. Or the interviewee has a distinctive tattoo that looks like one the victim had. Something like that. Again, the reader is going to think you included the scene for some reason, so don’t leave them hanging.
If your intended purpose in a scene is to offer the reader a history lesson or the sum total of your research into building high-speed roller coasters, you may be guilty of creating info dumps. My personal philosophy is to offer enough science (or history), when necessary, for the sake of verisimilitude, and trust your reader to fill in a lot of blanks themselves. Don’t try to hide more information than necessary in character dialogue either (although this is probably the best place to do it). Readers are a savvy group. Any line of dialogue that begins “As you probably know. . .” is suspect, and I’d bet it should be removed.
Avoiding info dumps can be difficult advice to follow after you’ve completed so much research about a topic. The knowledge energizes your fiction and you want to share some of it. Think about research in terms of icebergs.
Allow maybe 10% of the sum total of your research—like the visible portion of an iceberg—to appear on the page. You’ll know that your characters know the rest of it, and that secret knowledge will help your characters seem more real. If the reader is interested enough to research the topic further on their own, then so be it.
As a reader, I do that all the time, whenever an author casually mentions a historical event or scientific phenomenon I wish to know more about. The Internet is wonderful for this type of educational distraction.
Other suspect scenes would be the mundane day-to-day stuff, like the middle part of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” the bouncy McCartney ditty about waking up and getting out of bed. I mentioned this when I talked about eliminating unnecessary transitions, which are a type of scene, of course. Similar, a scene in which your viewpoint character is alone and doing nothing but thinking about plot points or backstory may be unnecessary. It’s okay for this to happen occasionally, but, for God’s sake, give your character someone else to talk to about the important stuff, if it’s necessary information. Even comic books largely consider thought balloons passé.
Minor characters can also sometimes derail your fiction. Avoid becoming so enamored with minor characters that you spend pointless minutes and hours exploring their lives in unnecessary scenes. If you think a minor character is that good, then give them something important to do in the story. As an easily distracted person—what’s that? squirrel!!—I’m prone to doing this. Hey, that’s a neat character. I wonder what her home life is like. This kind of thinking has led to the creation of a lot of fertile backstory and some neat writing, but it rarely serves the story I’m trying to tell. Here’s where writing without plotting beforehand doesn’t work for me.
Since I watch a lot of television shows, I tend to think in terms of television storytelling. Donna Moss was never meant to be a focal character on The West Wing, but actor Janelle Moloney imbued her with such life and watchability that she became an important member of the ensemble cast. But, going forward, her presence in scenes was never extraneous. When this happens in your fiction, it’s not necessarily a mistake. You just have to know the dangers of confusing your readers.
The final piece of advice I want to offer on this topic is this: Don’t be afraid to kill your darlings.
This writing advice has been attributed to William Faulkner, but I’ve read some version of it in almost every book on writing that I’ve ever read. It doesn’t mean to get rid of all your favorite lines and passages. Not at all. Just those that don’t really advance your story, even if they are the most wonderfully written things you’ve ever put on paper. This could be sideplots, characters, words or phrases—and scenes. Do a little introspection and ask yourself why it’s important that something remain in your story. If your reasons are largely selfish, the thing should probably be surgically excised. If it’s easy to cut one of your darlings out without it seriously altering the flow of your story, that’s a sign that it didn’t belong in the first place.
Write on, True Believers!