Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What to Leave Out and What to Put In

Now that I'm working on my third novel, I find that I'm willing to leave out a lot more stuff.

How did a character get from one place to another?  Who cares?  We know they have legs, they probably walked.

How did a character learn a piece of information?  Unless it's a secret, it's probably general knowledge in their locale, or maybe they heard it through the rumor mill.

How did two characters become romantically involved?  Sometimes it's important to show this, other times it's enough to show they're interested in each other.  Then, when we rejoin them at a later time, it's natrual they should be a couple.

A lot of this boils down to this: Don't belabor the obvious.  Don't bore the reader with details she can easily assume.

On the other hand, I've read books where some important piece of business takes place off stage while the narrative follows some character at a dinner party or driving a car or something.  (This especially seems to afflict the soap opera strips on the newspaper comics page, where Judge Parker or Mary Worth are always arriving on the scene right after something interesting happened.)

Here are some general rules on when to leave it out or include a scene:

Leave in
- Important character development
- Fights, arguments, conflict
- Action that moves the story along
- Unusual, weird, don't see that every day

Leave out
- Spatial movement.  Just go to the scene where something is happening, and we'll assume the characters know how to get there.  The exception, of course, is where the travel itself is important to the plot.
- Logically necessary but obvious developments.  It may be important that a character, say, has a fully-stocked refrigerator, but you don't need to show us the shopping trip.
- Sex.  For some reason sex is usually pretty boring to read in books.  Maybe because it interrupts the plot action?  Just give us a hint that it's about to happen, and then move on.
- Boring things.  Even if they're necessary for the plot, try to find a way to cut a scene that feels boring.  Maybe have the next scene start right after the necessary but boring scene took place, and have characters mention that it happened.

Here's a rule of thumb: If it bores you when you're writing it, it will bore the reader when she reads it.


  1. Good for you. My writing made great strides when I figured out what you've said here.

    There may be one more step, though it's a personal choice: sometimes even the action scenes can be left out. Among the standout elements of George V. higgins's writing (The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Cogan's Trade), is his willingness ot let the action take place off stage, then bring the reader up to speed through dialog after the fact. When done well, it helps to characterize, and can create suspense and doubt as different characters see things different ways, so the reader is never sure what happened; all he has are the observations of others. This allows a Rashomon-type scenario to play out on different levels.

  2. Interesting idea--sort of using a lot of white space, so what's in the picture is in especially sharp relief, but details around the edges are lost.

    I'm not quite sure yet if my paring down is just a sign of better writing judgment, or a long-term stylistic trend that will eventually end up like your description of Higgins.