Monday, March 17, 2014

Technical Topic -- Just Leave Stuff Out

Elsewhere, somebody asked, (I'm paraphrasing,)

"Time passes between one chapter and the next.  Stuff happens.
Do I have to write out all those scenes of checking into a picturesque inn and selling the horse and leaving a message for the dwarf?

How do I show the reader what went on without dropping long, boring explanations at the start of the new chapter?"

This is part of the larger topic of
 Just Leave Stuff Out
where we don't tell the reader most of
what's going on in our timeline
because most of what people do is excruciatingly boring.

So you don't take the character Miles out of the library and show him walking along the
Not taking every separate step
hall and then downstairs with his hand on the bannister and then down another hall which you describe in detail and then to the kitchen door and then he opens the door and walks in . . .

It's more like,
"I'll just ask Doris about that." Miles stomped out of the library.
He didn't find Doris in the kitchen.  She was out back, in the kitchen garden, hanging up damp tea towels, looking frazzled. 

We have skipped right from brandy by the library fire to tea towels in the garden and skipped the dull long dull trek through Milton manor.

(We have, incidentally, changed scene without knocking the reader over the head with it.  Did you see that?  Zip.)
The reader is grateful.
Even Miles is grateful.

When we move from one chapter to another and change place and let time elapse, we take advantage of Just Leave Stuff Out.

Chaptering is a place where we have have lots to do.  It's a bit like the beginning of the whole story, in fact.  We re-involve the reader.  Just as we don't start our story with a collection of backstory factoids, we don't start a new chapter with a clunky summary of intervening action.    

The triumvirate. I leave you to decide who is which.

Here's what we do when we start a new chapter in a radically new place.
Generally speaking, our goals are:

(1) establishment of POV, (if in 3rd limited,)
(2) establishment of setting, and
(3) action that is happening right now.

This is the triumvirate of
Whose head am I in?
Where the devil am I?
What's going on?  (We want something going on even if it's trivial.  We want a character in motion.)

Lookit here.

Chapter Six

Hork was as fond of rodents as the next man. His sister raised prize-winning ROUXs back home--fine eating and and a soft, spinnable
Action holding onto the story
wool in the fall. But he didn't like the wild pygmy variety that scattered underfoot as they walked into The Willing Wench.

-- And we got a character in motion, rather than a static scene.

He's walking into an inn.  We could even add more opening of doors or pushing aside of bystanders if we wanted to.
Motion.  Action.

-- We know where we are in space and time.  We are in the scene because the character has performed an action.

-- We have identified the POV character for the chapter because we see his internals and he is the first identified character.

In short, this first paragraph does the triumvirate of scene establishment.

I like to go pretty fast into dialog at the head of a chapter. Just my preference. I like this first dialog to hold emotion about the scene at hand and to hint at the next problem.

"Why don't we just eat in a sewer and skip the middleman?" He followed Jeremy to a table in the arse end of the tavern, careful where he put his feet.

"You wanted skanky? I give you skanky." Jeremy brushed at the history of former meals that encrusted the table. Gave up. Sat on the bench. "Brytog will like this place."

"And we have to please Brytog."

"God help us, we do."

Not mentioning the obvious
Okay. We are fifty or a hundred words into the scene.  All of the words have been in the scene's realtime.  We've added more stage business to show time passing and to solidify the fictive place.  This is about the earliest point that we bring up anything that happened elsewhen and elsewhere.

We mention only what is not obvious.

And our readers are very very smart, so lots of stuff will be obvious to them.

If our characters are warm and dry in the new chapter and last chapter they fell in a river, the reader will figure out they have changed clothing. If it is night and last chapter was noon, they know time has passed. If our folks walk off to their room at the inn, we don't need to say or to show one of them renting a room.  We Leave Stuff Out.

We add stuff that is
(1) not bloody obvious,
(2) important, and

(3) related to the problem the characters are going to deal with.

Insofar as possible, we wrap up the backstory factoids in ribbons of what-will-happen-next.

Ok.  Let's add that backstory ...

Jeremy tapped the purse he wore at his belt. "I got three and six for the nag and eight for the tack. It won't be traced back to us. I dropped some of it on replacement arrows, which you can complain about later when we're back at the inn.  The innkeep and the fletcher both say there's no werewolves in town. The Lythrops are hiding or run off in disorder. Or dead."

"Maybe they ate here." Himself, he wasn't going to touch anything that came out of that kitchen, including the tavern wench headed their way.


This is same old, same old problem of how to add backstory invisibly.

So let's say, for some arcane reason it's important the pack horse be accounted for.  Let's also say it's important to show somebody rented a room at the inn.
(Though basically these both sound dull as dirt.)
But let's say they're important and we gotta add them.

We want to convey these past factoids without dragging the reader's mind away from the present scene and back into the past.  
So we don't talk about them in a way that calls up the past.

We talk about them now-ish-ly.

The sale of the horse six hours ago greets us in the story present time because it's all about 'we won't get caught'. That's a 'now' worry.  A current worry.  We aren't dragged back to the morning and a scene with the unimportant guy who bought the horse.

The sale of the horse segues to arrows -- arrows with a 'now' location and intended action in the future when they will be examined.  'Why do they need arrows?' the reader asks herself.  This drags her to the future instead of the past.

Also -- 'nother technical point here -- we've given both character a plausible reason to talk about that sale.  We've avoided As You Know Bob where one guy describes dull intervening events to the other.

And if for some reason we want to tell the reader there's an inn chamber rented?
An inn, but probably less exciting than the Willing Wench
We don't go back into the past to show the innkeeper haggling over storing their luggage.  We firmly place that inn-rental factoid in the present by surrounding it with werewolves which are a current and future problem.
(This is like putting medicine into the ball of hamburger and trying to trick the dog into swallowing it, which is to say, not easy.)

So it's less a backstory dump of,"I rented a room. Then I sold the horse. Then I ..."
It's not so much, "This is what I did four hours ago and that is what I did next."

It's more, "When I bought oranges in the market there was no rumor of the princess coming through town,"
which brings the past action of orange purchasing into a relationship with the next problem in the story.


  1. This is really good! Nothing drags down the pace of a story more than too much stuff and overwriting.

  2. That's the trick -- isn't it? Figuring out what we need to add and what doesn't need to be added.

    That choice is a big part of writing. I don't know exactly how to think about it or talk about it.

  3. Lil Marek2:06 PM

    I know this is off topic, but I've found liverwurst more effective than hamburger for getting the blasted pill into the dog.

    1. Liverwurst, huh?

      This last couple days -- I'm snowed in -- I've fallen back on feta cheese. But next time I get down the mountain and go to a store I'll buy some liverwurst.

      I like liverwurst.

  4. Wonderful info. Because I'm a long winded old broad, I needed it. :-)

    1. Oh my. I wouldn't dream of offering advice to you. Oh my.
      (jo blushes)

      I think most writers do this instinctively. They distinguish interesting digression
      from vital information nugget
      from constituent plot point
      from unnecessary clinker of backstory
      at twenty paces.

      I give advice, but writing from the gut is the best writing.

  5. This is a great post! I'm sharing! I wish you'd give a class.

    1. Actually, I'm trying to decide whether to give an online talk on POV in April. I have to get back to the guy soon.

      I just never seem to have any time, y'know. Is it just me?

  6. So, um, when do we get more to the story of which you just gave glimpses? Don't tell me these were just *examples*...

    1. I'm afraid they're just examples ...

      (jo hangs head)

    2. I feared as much. Sigh.

  7. I think I will have to reread this blog post whenever I sit down for revisions. :) And I do hope you give an on-line class.

  8. I'm doing revisions myself just now.

    There are no lifevests, no lilos, no unexpected islands popping out of the sea of revisions. Just, y'know, dog paddling like mad.

    1. Revisions of what? Of Pax's story, or something to follow it?? *Will* something follow it (i.e. in the same series)? (Just being nosy.)

    2. This is final cleaning up of Pax before it goes to the copyeditor. LOTS to do.

      I think the next work will be in the same fictive universe. Yup.

  9. Great post with wonderful reminders. I find the closer I get to deadline the sloppier I get. God bless my editor. :)

    1. Where would we be without out editors and copy editors. *sigh*

  10. Jo, I'm enjoying reading your blog posts as I wait eagerly for Pax's story :) Not a writer, but your posts are fascinating reading nonetheless!

    1. It's interesting watching any workman pursue their endeavor. I can stand and study folks laying sewer pipe or repairing phone lines or restocking shelves. All fascinating.

    2. True that! Thank you for sharing some of your craft, Jo!

  11. This is wonderful! You're right, you DO start to do this instinctively when you've been writing for awhile, but in some ways that's a trap. It makes it harder to figure out where you're going wrong when things DON'T move like they're supposed to. This lays it all out very clearly. Thank you!

    1. We never need to explain as much as we think we do. Readers are so good at filling in the blanks.

      But all this is only advice. It's giving permission to leave stuff out, not saying one has to. Some folks need to write the words and remove them later -- which is authorial method and shouldn't be mucked with.

  12. I read this blog, and read the beginning of a story I'm just staring, and I found that I did do a lot of it instinctively! But it's wonderful to have the information laid out. I'm learning so much from your blog and so appreciate the time you take to give such valuable information. And, to make it interesting. I can't wait for Pax's story, btw!


  13. It's only when we sit down to write that we make mistakes, trying to put everything in. Trying to cover all six bases, as it were.

    I am in the middle of copyedits on Pax. So much fun, really.

  14. Nice blog that answers a question people ask a lot in writing groups and writing forums. I'll definitely be referring some people to this entry.

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