Elmore Leonard, one of our best American writers, famously said that he tried to “leave out the parts people skip” when he was writing. Anyone who has read a Leonard novel knows that they are lean, move quickly, and certainly don’t require any skimming.
But what exactly does that mean?
People start skimming when they lose interest. When they want you to get on with things. When they’re not as engaged by the story as they should be.
So how do you keep them engaged?
What follows are a few ideas.
KEEP YOUR PROSE STYLE
SIMPLE, ECONOMIC, AND CLEAR
You can certainly be clever and artistic, but never sacrifice economy and clarity for the sake of “art.” Much of that art, in fact, is writing sentences and paragraphs and pages that flow from one to the next, giving the reader no choice but to hang onto every word.
And clarity is always important. If a reader is confused about what is going on, she may well give up on you.
Don’t bog your story down with too much description.
Descriptive passages can be quite beautiful, but your job is to weigh whether or not they’re necessary. Poetic writing is often wonderful, but those who can pull it off are rare.
Gregory MacDonald, the author of the Fletch books, among others, once said that because we live in a “post-television” world, it is no longer necessary to use the amount of description needed in the past. We all know what the Statue of Liberty looks like because we’ve seen it on TV. We’ve seen just about everything on TV, and probably even more on the Internet.
So, I think it’s best to limit your descriptions to only what is absolutely necessary to make the story work. Meaning: enough to set the scene, set up a character, or to clarify an action.
Let’s face it. Saying something as simple as, The place was a dump. Several used syringes lay on the floor next to a ratty mattress with half its stuffing gone is often more than enough to get the message across.
If you can, describe a setting through the eyes of whatever character controls the scene (meaning point of view). If you include the description as part of that character’s thought process, colored by his or her mood or personality, the description then becomes much more dynamic and also reveals a lot about that character.
One man’s dump, after all, may be another man’s paradise. And showing how a character reacts to a place is much more interesting than a static description.
TEASE YOUR READERS
One of the biggest mistakes I see aspiring writers make is that they try to reveal too much about character motivation and story too soon. Your job—as crass as it might sound—is to manipulate your reader. To keep her reading. Turning those pages.
Imagine meeting someone for the first time and they tell you everything there is to know about them. Where they were born, where they went to school, how many affairs they’ve had, how many brothers and sisters, their favorite color, their favorite food—you get the point.
What makes people interesting to us is that all of these things are revealed over a long period of time. We get to know them gradually, rather than all at once. They are a mystery that we have to unravel.
The same holds true with storytelling. You manipulate your readers by constantly creating questions in their minds. Why is she doing that? Where is she going? What happened to her in the past that makes her afraid of confronting him?
If we know it all up front, we’ll lose interest fast.
Actor and comedian Keegan Michael Key recently described improvisation as walking backwards. I think the same applies to writing fiction. You start with a character and as you walk the reader backwards, more and more gets revealed. The chair he’s sitting in, part of the room surrounding him—there’s a bed over there, a sofa to his right—then you keep walking backwards and you discover that one of the walls has crumbled and you begin to hear the sounds of traffic and you realize the man is sitting in a chair in a house with only two walls and no roof that has been partially destroyed by a tornado ,and he’s more or less sitting outside…
You start close and pull back and reveal, reveal, reveal.
GIVE YOUR CHARACTERS
A SERIES OF GOALS
Most stories will involve a central character who wants something. In a thriller, for instance, that may be something very big. The hero wants to stop the bad guy from, say, blowing up the federal building.
But if that’s all the story is about, then I’m yawning already.
If you give the hero a series of goals, smaller points he or she must reach—both internally and externally—before finally reaching that ultimate goal, then your reader will never lose interest.
A great example is the third Die Hard movie, Die Hard with a Vengeance.
The bad guy has something nefarious up his sleeve. But in order to distract the police from that ultimate goal, he sends them on a series of wild goose chases involving high explosives. And because our heroes are moving from one goal to the next, we’re never bored. In fact, we spend much of our time on the edge of our seat.
In the meantime, the main hero suspects that something is up, and as he tries to puzzle it out, we’re right there with him. We have only as much information as he has, so we’re not about to abandon ship until he (and we) knows the truth.
But more importantly, we also have a dynamic relationship playing out on screen between two characters played by Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson. These two men must work together reluctantly, and because we find them engaging, our stake in the outcome of the story is even higher.
Which brings me to my final point:
CREATE COMPELLING CHARACTERS
If you don’t create characters who are interesting in themselves, who have internal struggles we can relate to, who have fears we understand, who have a goal that makes sense to us on a personal level, then it doesn’t matter how cleverly you plot your novel. We won’t care.
Hopefully all of the above will help you “leave out the parts people skip.” And if you want to find out how the master himself does it, go pick up an Elmore Leonard novel today.
But be warned. He does it so well, it’s seamless. So you’ll have to pay close attention…