Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Dressing and Dining

We've all heard the advice to cut things like getting dressed or cooking meals from your narrative. And we've all heard the reasons behind this rule. These are non-dramatic actions. There's no tension or conflict in these actions. They weigh down the pace and bore the reader. They have nothing to do with the plot.

All true. But I thought it might be useful to look at two common ways authors slip into "dressing and dining" mode. I think there are reasons authors reach for these kinds of filler actions in certain spots, and understanding the usages might make it easier to revise them out of the narrative.

The Non-Transitional Transition

Sometimes, we see a long run of "getting ready" details at the start of a new scene. You know what I mean.

The next morning, Elsie woke slowly in the fading darkness before the sun crested the horizon. She stretched against the mattress and huddled deeper under the quilt. It would be at least an hour before anyone else rose. Time to herself. What a treat. With hardly a whisper of sound, she threw back the covers and donned her robe and slippers, made the bed, and headed toward her closet. It would be warm today, and Miller had warned her that their project would be physically challenging. T-shirt and jeans? But she wanted to feel pretty even if she was sweating over fence posts and rails. 

And so on, the prose continues in a languid manner, dawdling over moments of solitude and ordinary household and hygiene tasks. Maybe some of this information is tangentially related to the plot, and maybe some it sheds light on the character or conflicts. However, most (if not all) of this kind of passage can be cut without having any impact on the story.

I think there are two reasons for this kind of flat scene opening: the author isn't sure what happens next, or the author isn't sure how to transition between two events or moments in story time. To cure the first issue (what happens next?), just keep reading until you reach a point where some kind of opposition occurs. Remember in high school when you learned all the forms of conflict -- human versus nature, human versus human, human versus god, and so on? Look for that kind of oppositional moment in the scene. The first place it occurs is the first place where actual scene material is unfolding. That is the natural start to the scene, the place where "what happens next" begins to actually happen. You might still need some kind of transition or set-up before that moment, but you want to open the scene close to that spot in the narrative.

I've heard advice suggesting that when your scene starts slowly with a solitary character, you should cut everything that happens until a second character comes on the scene. But that's not always a cure. Sometimes, a character can be totally alone and experiencing a tremendous conflict. Or a second character can arrive and spend six pages discussing the weather before anything meaningful occurs. The better option is not to look for the arrival of another character but for the commencement of the scene-level conflict.

But sometimes, these long intros don't result from author confusion over what happens next. Sometimes, it's a clumsy transition. Usually, we can identify these by the fairly small number of lines between the chapter heading (or scene break) and the start of the scene conflict. These clumsy transitions rarely go on for more than a full page, though it is possible for an author to get really bogged down and "transition" for a few pages. Usually, there's a real sense of wheel-spinning in the text, often in the form of multiple adverb clauses mentioning the passage of time. It reads almost as though the author keeps trying to formulate a good transition, and tries again, and again, and then finally kicks into gear with real action.

In those cases, the first question is, do we need this transition or can we start with the natural beginning of the scene conflict? Sometimes, you can jump right into the fray, and that means cutting all the false starts. Other times, a transition is necessary. In that case, pick the best one out of the false starts -- or cut them all and craft a new one -- but keep it to a single sentence, maybe even a single phrase or clause if you can manage it. With only rare exceptions, transitions don't need to be longer than that.

We sometimes see an author try to fix a flat opening by moving things around without cutting anything. In those cases, you often see a line of provocative dialogue, maybe a paragraph or two of real action, followed by a long blob of, "after the last scene, this is what the characters all did" type information. That doesn't fix the problem. The only difference there is that, instead of being bored by the first pages of the scene, the reader will be bored by middle pages. (It is possible to place transitional information after the natural beginning of the scene, but it must be short -- a single sentence, a single phrase or clause, as mentioned above.)

The Blank Background

Sometimes it happens that the characters are having a meaningful conversation as they eat or cook or get dressed. The purpose of the scene is to have that conversation. The purpose of the scene is not to eat or cook or get dressed. The author includes that "dressing and dining" action to keep the scene from lapsing into "talking heads" mode. It's the right instinct, but the wrong result.

Funny thing. More often than not, the author who uses routine household chores as scene background tends to use the same ones over and over again. Any editor who's been working in this game for more than, say, ten minutes can tell you a story of a book where the characters spend half the book occupied with some very ordinary task, always the same task from the same author. One author might have her characters bathe or shower in every other chapter. Another sends them grocery shopping six times in a 60k-word book. The conversations always occur over meals, or the sequel musings always happen while cooking. I will confess that an early draft of one of my manuscripts had the characters drinking tea on a shocking number of pages. Every now and then we'll run into an author who rotates cooking, bathing, eating, and the like, but more often than not, they reach for the same kind of filler background over and over throughout the text.

There's no cure for this but revision -- not just tinkering, but a total re-seeing of the scene. It helps to overhaul not just the scenes, but the way the author conceptualizes scenes. I recommend starting with the setting. Figure out places to set your scenes that prevents you from reaching for routine background tasks as filler. Make the setting relevant. Make the action interesting. Think deeply about what these characters DO over the course of the story, what makes them who they are, and figure out a way to leverage that.

This doesn't mean you have to make your characters practice their trapeze act while they discuss the suspects and clues in your mystery. You don't want the scene and background to overwhelm the meaningful action, after all.You're looking for something which enhances the deeper architecture of the story -- the themes and motifs, the characters' core beliefs, that sort of thing. This is going to feel hard and even frustrating if you're not used to this kind of scene construction. But it does get easier with practice, so suck it up, work it out, and look forward to the time when you can do this kind of scene construction easily. You know, you might even find that it's fun. Lots of authors do!



Samantha Hunter said...

Hi Teresa -- interesting blog. In part, I agree and in part, I resist. I think I mostly agree, but also resist any wholesale rule to delete any particular kind of scene.

I think I'd want to qualify this with something like "if you have FIVE or more of these scenes, then take a second look, but a few might be okay, especially if it's working with pacing, giving your reader a pause, offering some inside info on the char, etc.

I think you can have some slower paced spots/passages in a book. Readers might need them, even. They might enjoy knowing what's in a character's closet or fridge -- this could tell us a lot about them, or make them more real and relatable.

You do mention maybe needing transitions, etc and so much of this comes down to style as well. The writer's voice, pace, etc, as well as the type of book. A closet/cooking scene may not have worked in the DaVinci Code or the Bourne Identity, but it works wonderfully in many romances. If the heroine is scouring her closet for the right thing to wear, that's relevant. I also think readers often just enjoy some of the fashion/food in books. Chick lit capitalized on that, of course.

So... I would tend to take it scene by scene, book by book, I think. I don't this kind of scene always has to go. A little tweaking could make them more relevant while not cutting too much.


Unknown said...

Great points! I think it's important not to have a rule that you follow by rote (ie. delete all housework scenes) but rather a principle that you adhere to consistently. Evaluating scenes first on a "does it work or doesn't it" basis, then figuring out what does work and what doesn't, and fixing it from there. Good insight.

Edittorrent said...

Sam, I don't think I expressed a wholesale rule in this post. I think if you look at it again, you'll see a lot of tips about how to weigh and measure these kinds of moments in the text to determine if they should be cut, specifically by looking at two general classes of ways these kinds of details are abused by lazy writers.


Edittorrent said...

Thanks, IsaiahC. It can be difficult sometimes to tell when it's okay to portray routine tasks and when that gets in the way of good storytelling. This is such a common error, though. We see it all the time.


Jami Gold said...

Great post! I've avoided the obvious style of these sections, but you're right that they can sneak in other ways.

My latest WIP has two scenes of the H/h eating. The scenes are meant to complement each other and show world-building aspects. (A non-human character trying human food for the first time, and later deciding that it was a bad idea.) I *think* it works, but I'll take a closer look to make sure. :)