I’m thinking about the word “tight” today as I deal with my orthodontia. Tightening my teeth means bringing them into line, giving me a perfect bite that spares grinding wear on the enamel and just plain looks better. Music can be tight, too. When I hear a jazz arrangement where every nuance is in perfect balance. Cut-offs, dynamic changes, and blend are all “together” (say that with a sassy voice). It’s electric. It isn’t just safe, it’s WOW! (Harry Connick Jr. does it all the time, by the way. Dang!)
Good writing is tight, too.
But what does that mean? For me, tight writing means that every scene, every paragraph does one of three things: advances, asks, or answers. A very common flaw in fiction writing (my earlier writing included) is including too many details that don’t actually propel anything forward. It’s just blah blah blah. It may be very well-written blah blah blah, but it’s still essentially taking up space in the story like the Styrofoam peanuts in the packing box. People see it and think, “Where is what I really want?” which is, of course, the story.
This is where Stephen King’s famous advice to “kill your darlings” comes in. This is where, as writers, we need to take the metaphorical scissors to the manuscript and start chopping, or at least trimming. In a really tight story, one that demands that the reader keep reading instead of taking a sleep/potty/eating break, each paragraph does something.
Advance the Plot
Sometimes we writers want to show everything that our characters do. Everything. The walking, the chewing, the dressing, the cleaning fingernails. Sometimes the reader…really doesn’t care. My father called it over-directing my characters. We often do it in the name of realism, but let’s face it: reality is sometimes boring. When we tell a story, we need to fast-forward to the relevant bits. Movies teach us a lot here. There are unshown scenes between the scenes because sometimes we really didn’t need to know how the characters got from A to B, just that they did. We need to keep the plot moving if we want to keep the pages turning.
Advance the Character Development
This would be a possible exception to the Advance the Plot rule. Our characters’ actions can reveal a lot about what makes them tick, but sometimes a scene isn’t so much about action as it is about getting a deeper look into a character’s soul–her motivations, fears, and hopes. In these moments, mundane things may be happening, but the words spoken or the reactions of the characters make all the difference. If, however, we are just showing folks talking over tea and we leave the scene not knowing anyone better, then we’d better hope the scene at least provided a question or an answer.
Ask a Question
Active readers are constantly asking questions. Why did he do that? What is she afraid of? What was that all about? When is he going to kiss her, for crying out loud? Oh my gosh, is he the bad guy?! If a scene ends in such a way that readers are faced with a tantalizing question, they’ll keep reading to find out more. If everything in the scene leaves the characters where they started it, and there is no tension or urgent question, folks will put the book down and go do something else. We need to keep our readers guessing–even if we’re not writing suspense.
Answer a Question
This may be explanations that answer the doubts that have been plaguing the reader since chapter three, or it could be hinted clues to questions that haven’t been asked yet but will be soon. That would be for mysteries. This latter trick only works effectively if there isn’t a lot of blah blah blah already in the story. If there has been too much filler, readers stop thinking all the details are important and may gloss over them, thus missing the clues that actually matter. But when there are only important details included, the reader quickly starts to pay attention more closely, knowing that every word counts.
What about “setting the scene”?
Okay, all right. There are times when that’s what’s going on. This especially happens with historical, science fiction, or fantasy writing where the author needs to pull the reader into a new world and help them really visualize it, hear it, smell it, etc. But if we are skillful (and it’s a trick, for sure), we can do that stage-setting in tandem with one of the other key purposes. Character-revealing dialogue can happen while they put on their fancy 18th century ball gowns. A villain can be struggling to analyze a mystical or technological wonder so that readers ask questions, too. Action can take place even as we discover how hunky the hero is.
This is all a matter of taste!
Different genres require different levels of non-plot/character-advancing details, but truly gifted writers (like the one I want to be some day), can write tight stories that have the best of both worlds. Like braces, tight writing will get rid of the bad and leave everything perfect. Like a tight jazz performance, tight writing will leave the reader saying, “WOW!” not just “That was nice.” Tight writing is a matter of taste, but it does matter!
What tricks have you used to “set the stage” while still moving things forward? Which authors have you read that do this really well? How?
A few of my friends have approached me recently about wanting to write books. Since they are primarily talking about nonfiction books, I thought I’d share some thoughts on the matter. Allow me to tell you a little story from my youth.
During my senior year in high school, we had to write a 20-page research paper with full documentation. Now, this was in the days before computers, so all my preliminary work was written by hand. VERY time-consuming. And no back-up copies.
As per the instructions of my teacher, I used an outline to organize my information. I marked my notes with Roman numerals, knowing each indentation on the outline was a new paragraph. It took me two weeks to write the paper once the research was completed, but finally, all that remained was to type the thing up from my hand-written “final draft” copy.
I was so relieved to have gotten that far that I trashed the outline and notes and headed off to school. There in the typing room (what would now be the computer lab), I opened my pee chee…AND SCREAMED!!! (The teacher monitoring may have spilled her coffee.) Before me lay my outline and notes–but no research paper! I had thrown out the wrong pile! (Remember, it was not saved on any thumb drive or hard drive.)
I ran to the office to call home (no cell phones in those days, either). Mom was sorry, but she’d taken the trash out because it was garbage collection day. My research paper–weeks’ worth of work–was on its way to the dump.
Tears streaming down my face, I barged into the classroom of the relevant teacher and explained my plight.
“Do you still have the outline and notes?”
“Yes,” I sobbed. “But not the paper.”
She smiled at me and said, “I’ll give you one extra day.”
“ONE?! But it took me two weeks to write it!”
“You can do it.”
And you know what?
I wrote it in one night, and typed it the next day. And I got an A- on it. One of the highest scores in the class.
You see, I had already processed all the information several times: once by reading it, once by taking notes, and once again by placing it into the organized outline. Writing the paper was simply a matter of putting that information into coherent sentences in some semblance of order. The second time I wrote that paper taught me a life lesson I’ve used ever since:
An outline is a map.
Follow it, and writing a well-organized paper is a snap.
Before every college essay test I ever took, I sketched a quick outline. Fellow students thought I was nuts to burn valuable test time doing that. But I usually finished before they did–and with better results. Many fall into the camp of thinking pre-writing is a waste of time, but whether you use a formal outline with Roman numerals and letters, or a Venn diagram, a brainstorming bubble, or a simple list on a post-it note, taking the time to organize your thoughts first makes the whole process faster and clearer.
Now, this can work for fiction as well, but with a caution. There is a difference between writing fiction and nonfiction. Characters. Characters, unlike researched, documented facts, don’t always stay within the parameters you set for them. In fact, if they are worth anything, they don’t. Fiction-writers who choose to use outlines typically have to view their outline as more of a guideline than a rule, knowing that there will be detours along the way. This doesn’t mean the outline is worthless; it reminds the writer of the super-objective and provides a framework in which to explore the character’s growth arc, but that’s a post for another day…