When you read through your manuscript, do you ever find scenes that seem to slow the pacing? Or do critique partners say that the scene bored them, or that they skipped it? If you decide that a scene drags, you can run through this checklist to see if you can find a cure.
* Is it a filler? (“She parked the car, pulled the key out of the ignition, stepped up on the curb. . . .”) Is it not really a scene, but just typing? (You finished the previous scene and just kept the tape rolling, following the “action”–or lack of it–as the characters do something that we don’t need to see.) If a scene doesn’t advance the plot, it should be needed for characterization and/or to set up a moment that will come later. If it shows a character in a rare unguarded moment, use that insight for an “aha!” later. If it shows a shotgun over the fireplace, be sure shots are fired later on.
But if the scene is really a filler, with nothing but empty banter or self-indulgent stuff about the character(s), you should probably paste it into a “deletia” file for later cannibalization.
* Sometimes it just takes a scene a while to get going. Think of a live play in a theater, where every line has to carry a lot. In a way, playwrights have it good, because they can have actors SHOW the characters walking into the restaurant hesitantly and glancing around the room. But the down side is that they’d better start a brawl soon, or have a pickpocket reach into someone’s back pocket. They don’t get a lot of narrative downtime. Novelists can get away with a little bit, but only a few lines at a time.
Summarize by saying that Joe drove to the bank and made his deposit, *but* discovered that his balance was negative. THEN you go right into the dramatized portion. “What?” he shouted at the teller. “I can’t be overdrawn–I still have checks left!” (Etc.)
* Guard against infodumps. Actually, I sometimes appreciate a brief infodump or mini-flashback (implied flashback) when we’re coming into a scene and don’t need to have some long drawn-out conversation about what went before. But in general, you should drip the information out during dialogue and minor action. *Don’t* make the mistake of dripping details in during a major action scene such as a chase scene, though, as characters should be thinking about how terrified they are or how much adrenaline rush they’re getting, not about what-have-you. Though I do think that to mention that it makes him/her think of that time at Seven Flags when he threw up on the roller coaster or fell out of the Caddo Canoes is okay, if you keep it to a bare mention. But that’s just me.
Think of the film “Foul Play,” in which a lot of information was exchanged between characters while the camera was watching action that amused us and informed us. The snake going after the cookies, for example (which set up the snake), or Dudley Moore getting all down and dirty in the apartment while Goldie Hawn peeks out the window to see if the albino is still following her. That way, the info we got was painless. We were laughing. A few novelists do this well. Some step over the boundary into ridiculousness and absurdity when they do it (I’m thinking of one Southern-gothic-mystery/thriller author who always pushes it into absurdity, but who is really popular, so go figure.) Shift the focus from the “uh-huh, Professor Infodump,” to the “What is THAT behind you?” moment.
* It’s tough to show a boring moment. That one takes a bit of doing. You don’t want READERS to be bored while your characters are bored. I’ve also heard that readers can feel nauseated when characters say they are, and so forth. Some situations call for a lot of skill in portraying them.
* If you need to explain a term or custom, you should do it, but don’t go into lots of detail. And don’t put it into dialogue. Because, as you know, Bob, it is too risky that you’ll end up with either
A) “As you know, Bob, we all live in an economy-sized jar of Tang. And it’s the middle of the next century and the end of the world is coming in twelve minutes.”
B) “Sergeant Blueshirt, we both know that we’re riding in a police car here in Mangle, Florida, at ten PM. Let’s review: we’re headed for a domestic disturbance call. And you don’t have your Kevlar vest on because you forgot to put it on, for the first time ever.”
“Yes, Detective Exposition, and since I’m your brand-new partner, I’m pretty nervous about all this. I know I got the wrong kind of doughnuts. Next time, I’ll be sure to get the ones with chocolate sprinkles.”
Let some things go unexplained for a bit, although the occasional reader will circle that in red and keep saying, “I don’t GET it,” mainly because she’s never figured out how to get things from the context. Readers should be able to get the gist of things such that they’re pretty much understood from the context after a page or so.
“Wow! Look at all the shiny Gzorps lying by the side of the road. What a waste. Doesn’t anyone care about recycling?”
“Want me to pull over and get some?”
“Forget it . . . we’re on a schedule.”
Later on, someone can mention how the desperate lack of/surplus of Gzorps is a major problem. You will not be springing Gzorps on the reader, as she will remember this little detail, which is good. By this time, she’ll be patient enough to read your description of what/who they are and how they’re used.
However, guard against calling a bunny a Meerp just for the halibut.
* Don’t let your book’s dialogue be anything like the stuff in all o’ those newfangled TV shows. Much indulgence is allowed them because people are in love with the actors. Also, you are SEEING it happen, so your suspension of disbelief isn’t quite so fragile. But if you have a page of stuff like:
“Would anybody mind telling me just exactly what is going on around here?”
“Just another lovely day in Paradise.”
“So . . . ready to save the world from the demons?”
“Yeah . . . let’s be careful out there.”
Yes, I know they’re making lots of fans with those shows, but it isn’t because we aren’t laughing at the dialogue. . . .
IMHO, storytelling is not *just* about plot (that’s pulp fiction in the olden-days sense) or *just* about character (that’s memoir and biography). There should be a synergy. These two elements should relate–the action of the plot should in some way come out of character, after the inciting incident. Your character should have to face one of his or her worst fears in order to triumph, and/or should undergo a character change he or she would never have expected.
To me, “something happening” doesn’t mean constant chase scenes or murders. It’s your telling of everyday events that makes them interesting because we see how they matter to the characters. The events should snowball and the characters should change in reaction. Plan for continuity, progression, and braiding of plot/subplot threads. But don’t make it so convoluted that readers get confused. Readers should feel that the story is authentic and interesting, even if it’s pure fantasy.
* Don’t rely on the same old plots that we’ve seen hundreds of times. Take plots from situations that happen to you or around you. “Been down THAT alley before,” says your subconscious. “You can do better,” it adds, bashing down a doubt monster with the battered lid from a handy garbage can.
* Reach for fresh descriptions and metaphors/comparisons. Do you get people who tell you that you should reduce your vocabulary, and never say “blustery,” but only say, “very windy”? (As someone told a character in “FoxTrot.”) So do I, but unless you are using really weird words, you ought to reach for the exactly right word.
I can see a difference between “the rough bark of a misshapen tree” and “the age-lumped surface of a gnarled oak.” So will your readers.
Your ruler is a dictator? How the mighty have fallen. Surely you can do better: Tyrant? Sultan? Grand Vizier? Most Exalted Poobah and Lord Executioner?
Critiquers will pounce on the most insignificant of things sometimes, often because of their own pet peeves. Don’t let them vanilla-ize your work. “You can’t please everyone, so you got to please yourself.”
She walked across the room.
Pulling her hat down over her eyes, she set her shoulders and strode across the crowded motel lobby. [“Strode purposefully” would be getting a bit out of hand.]
Heart in her throat, she edged around the ballroom, desperately trying to keep her skirts (damn these hoops!) clear of legs and chairs and predatory potted plants.
She felt her way across the room, skirting dank pools of ooze, ducking the ichor-dripping webs of Zantor-knew-what, and wishing she could ignore the chitinous crunching underfoot.
Which way do you want your readers to experience the scene? It’s up to you.
People have varying tastes. They see events differently. “The facts are the same, but the truth is different for everyone,” as they say.
Your character has a unique POV. Use that filter to make the reading experience more fun.