Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Aha! You don't have to write everything...

Maven Carrie RyanAs Erica said yesterday, this week we're talking about that advice we hear time and again until one day when it clicks. So funny that this is the topic this week because it's something I was just discussing with my fiance JP (love to drop that in) last week on our drive up to Williamsburg.

I have a terrible memory -- truly horrific at times. And this means that I often forget a lot of writing advice that I read and hear. I think part of that is because I tend to mentally discard any advice that isn't important to what I'm working on then and there. So I read a lot of great tips and advice and think "that's great!" but because it's not what I need at that time it tends to go in one ear and out the other.

Which is kind of cool because I can read the same advice over and over again and still find new nuggets! This is one of the reasons that I love to read (or talk) about craft -- every time I'm in a different place when I read about craft and so I learn a new lesson. And I love to look at things with new angles.

So I have tons of "aha!" moments all the time :) But there's been one in particular that I've been thinking about a lot recently and that's a combination of the advice to skip the boring parts and to make every scene matter. One reason this has been on my mind is because I've been reading a lot of contest entries lately and I see the same thing: writers feeling like they have to show *everything.*

The thing is, as writers we really don't have to show everything. Our readers are smart and they can put stuff together. For example, a lot of the contest entries I've been reading are YA and set in school. We see the character in class, walking out of class, at her locker, changing out books, walking to the cafeteria. This is all stuff that every student does almost every day. But some of these scenes don't pull their weight -- they don't add anything to the scene -- and so they can drag.

When writing these scenes I think it's important to ask ourselves "Why is this here and what does it add?" Maybe there's a note slipped into the protag's locker and so it's important we see her there. Maybe the cafeteria scene sets up the social hierarchy of the school which will play a pivotal role in the book. I'm not saying that you can't write these scenes, I'm just saying that they have to carry their weight. If you're just writing about your protag going to her locker because that's what kids do, then skip it. Or don't linger over it.

This is one of those bits of advice that I felt really comfortably with when writing FHT. I used * * * to skip all over the place! But then, in writing Book 2 I found myself writing a scene that seemed lackluster. It was three people arguing about having to get a first aid kit and what it looked like and where it was and blah blah. Which, in some cases, could be important. But it wasn't important to what I was writing at all. And the characters kept repeating the same arguments and the whole thing was just meh going in circles.

Finally I just decided that I would skip ahead and my first thought was "I can't! I have to explain to the reader everything so they can follow along!" Bah! Such an easy trap to fall into! In that scene the first aid kit wasn't important, what it looked like and even getting it -- none of it was important! What was important was the protag sewing up someone's wound and I didn't have to spend 10 pages getting her the supplies she needed. Going through all the motions just felt like the logical next step but it's like sending your character to her locker because that's what kids do before going to lunch -- if the important scene is the lunch scene, who cares about the lockers!

Maybe a movie example will help... in Independence day Will Smith shoots down that alien and he gets the ship open and punches out the alien. We don't see him struggle with getting it out of the ship, getting it wrapped up in the parachute, starting on the journey -- we don't see any of it even though it had to happen. We just see him walking alone in the desert dragging the thing because that's what's important. The details would drag and it wasn't that kind of movie (it would be a different movie if Will took his time examining the alien, trying to figure it out, etc -- but that wasn't his character).

I'm not saying you should zip merrily through your manuscript hitting only the highlights of the plot. But pay attention when you're writing that stuff that you feel like HAS to be there and ask yourself if it really does. And if it does, make sure the scene pulls its weight.

So that's what I've been pondering. As I said, I LOVE LOVE LOVE writing advice. Tips, craft, thoughts -- all of it! So share some of your own aha moments or just some tips that really resonate with you!

Be sure to drop by tomorrow when Guest Maven Tanya Michaels aka Tanya Michna is in the house. Tanya is a three-time RITA finalist and has authored over twenty-five books. One lucky commenter will receive a signed copy of her book, Trouble in Tennessee!


lacey kaye said...

Quiet here in MavenLand!

Love the example about Will Smith. What you also didn't say but was implied (hehehe) is that the reason it's important to see Will dragging the alien is because that IS his character. He's cursing the alien for being in the *#&% way and ruining his life and it's hilarious. If we watched him struggling to remove the beastie from the ship, it just wouldn't have the same LOL factor when you see how resentful he is that he has to drag it to the nearest camp (because that is, after all, what a *good* person would do, and Will Smith's role is all about the reluctant hero).

Which pretty much just means Carrie gave ME an aha moment :0)

Darcy Burke said...

Carrie, I know it's a great post when I not at literally every sentence! Yes, yes, yes! I've spent so much time writing busy scenes that are totally unnecessary. My pal Janice will tell you about a certain basket in Glorious that for awhile thought it could be a character in a scene (like your first aid kit). We still laugh about that.

I have aha moments all the time. Thank God for that, too.

Erica Ridley said...

This is a great post, Carrie!

My first thought was "I can't! I have to explain to the reader everything so they can follow along!" [...] What was important was the protag sewing up someone's wound and I didn't have to spend 10 pages getting her the supplies she needed.

This part really resonates with me. I used to write these horrific spy-cam-like scenes: char driving in a car, char getting dressed, char eating dinner. Like you said: who cares?? Tell the story. Great insights!!

Jackie Barbosa said...

Ah, how many "spy-cam" scenes (as Erica so aptly puts it) have I written in my life? Honestly, I'd rather not tell.

And there's more to this "you don't have to write EVERYTHING" advice than not writing scenes where you describe every action, even when it's not relevant to the story. Tessa Dare did a great post on her blog a few weeks ago about how sometimes, we put too much "stage direction" even into the scenes that DO matter. How many times have you had a character turn and look at someone else, or nod, or smile, or watch someone in a scene?

I know when I look at my own writing, I see myself dropping in a lot of stage direction that actually isn't necessary to the scene. If the POV character's narration mentions something about the expression on another character's face, for example, I think the reader can pretty much ASSUME the POV character is LOOKING AT the other character, lol. What's more important than the stage directions (which aren't completely UNimportant, BTW), I've realized, is what the characters are thinking and feeling about what's happening. What their interpretations and perceptions are. And while they gain those interpretations and perceptions from the cues in stage direction, it's often not necessary to show EVERY. SINGLE. THING.

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