Cutting the DULL from Your Scenes

by James Scott Bell

George Horace Lorimer was the legendary editor of The Saturday Evening Post from 1899 to 1936. He brought the circulation up from a few thousand to over a million, and made it a place known for quality fiction.

In the early days of his reign he received a letter from an indignant author which read, “Last week you rejected my story. I know that you did not read it for, as a test, I pasted together pages 15, 16 and 17, and the manuscript came back with the pages still pasted. You are a fraud and you turn down stories without even reading them.”

Lorimer responded, “Madam, at breakfast when I open an egg, I don’t have to eat the whole egg to discover it is bad.”

Painful, but true.

We talk a lot here at TKZ about opening pages. We all know how important they are to agents, editors, and readers. But we should think the same way about every scene in our novel. And thus to the topic for today: Cutting the DULL from your scenes. To wit:

Description Dumps

We talk often about avoiding “info dumps.” That is, larding on exposition or description in a way that makes the story seem to stand still. Yet, we need to know the setting of a scene, too.

The way to go is to write not so the reader merely sees the scene, but rather experiences it.

The best descriptions are a) woven into action, and b) consistent with the mood of the story. Stephen King’s “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away” is a melancholy tale about a traveling salesman who is thinking of ending it all. Here’s the opening paragraph:

It was a Motel 6 on I-80 just west of Lincoln, Nebraska. The snow that began at midafternoon had faded the sign’s virulent yellow to a kinder pastel shade as the light ran out of the January dusk. The wind was closing in on that quality of empty amplification one encounters only in the country’s flat midsection, usually in wintertime. That meant nothing but discomfort now, but if big snow came tonight—the weather forecasters couldn’t seem to make up their minds—then the interstate would be shut down by morning. That was nothing to Alfie Zimmer.

You can go line by line and see how King uses mood words within the simple action of a man arriving at a Motel 6 with a depressed disposition.

Here’s the great Raymond Chandler, as his cynical PI Philip Marlowe takes a drive in Chapter 13 of The Little Sister. Notice how this tells us as much about Marlowe as it does about the setting. (I love it because I have taken the same drive many times, albeit on the freeway):

I drove east on Sunset but I didn’t go home. At La Brea I turned north and swung over to Highland, out over Cahuenga Pass and down on to Ventura Boulevard, past Studio City and Sherman Oaks and Encino. There was nothing lonely about the trip. There never is on that road. Fast boys in stripped-down Fords shot in and out of the traffic streams, missing fenders by a sixteenth of an inch, but somehow always missing them. Tired men in dusty coupés and sedans winced and tightened their grip on the wheel and ploughed on north and west towards home and dinner, and evening with the sports page, the blatting of the radio, the whining of their spoiled children and the gabble of their silly wives. I drove on past the gaudy neons and the false fronts behind them, the sleazy hamburger joints that look like palaces under the colors, the circular drive-ins as gay as circuses with the chipper hard-eyed carhops, the brilliant counters, and the sweaty greasy kitchens that would have poisoned a toad.

Do you experience the scene like Marlowe does? How could you not?

So: Always describe your scenes in words that reflect the tone, which you’ll most often find in the mind of the viewpoint character.

Uninteresting Characters

Why does a story seem dull to a reader? In short, predictability. Subconsciously, the reader is anticipating what a character will do or say. If the character does do or does say something along those lines, the experience for the reader is boredom. “I’ve seen that before,” their sub-mind whispers. “Why keep reading?”

So: When you think about the scene you’re going to write, plan one action (even if it’s just a line of dialogue) a reader won’t see coming. A good practice is to make a quick list of the things the average reader might expect to happen…then don’t do those things.

Lethargic Action

Kurt Vonnegut said a character in a scene must want something (the scene Objective), even if it’s just a glass of water. I’d add that the Objective must be something essential. So if it’s a glass of water, the character better be dying of thirst.

So: Make the Objective an essential step toward solving the story question. The story question should involve death stakes (physical, professional, or psychological). Otherwise, why should the reader care?

Leaden Prose

John D. MacDonald went for what he called “unobtrusive poetry” in his style. He wanted sentences that “sing,” but not in such a way that it sounds like Ethel Merman in the shower. Like this, from Darker Than Amber:

She sat up slowly, looked in turn at each of us, and her dark eyes were like twin entrances to two deep caves. Nothing lived in those caves. Maybe something had, once upon a time. There were piles of picked bones back in there, some scribbling on the walls, and some gray ash where the fires had been.

Leaden prose, on the other hand, is like Amish furniture from the 1850s. Functional, yes, but that’s it.

So: Work on expanding your voice. I wrote a book about that. Do some morning pages where you write page-long sentences. Try things. Make up wild metaphors, not to use (necessarily) but to stretch. Read challenging prose, even in nonfiction. Read poetry out loud (I recommend Robert W. Service).

And remember Hitchcock’s Axiom: “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”

32 thoughts on “Cutting the DULL from Your Scenes

  1. All the examples rock, Jim. Two deep caves with nothing inside paints such a perfect portrait of the woman. A memorable line, indeed. I also like to add a little flair to inanimate objects. For example, instead of “The leather satchel was in the trunk” we could write something like, “The leather satchel crouched low in the trunk, its zippered maw filled with weapons and tools.”

  2. Agreed on leaving out the dull bits. I try to be mindful of this while first drafting, but often it’s during the revision process that I really have to hone in and cut out the dull. Though I do see very gradual improvement over time as I continue to hone these skills while first drafting.

    I love how definitive Chandler’s “Marlowe” voice is each time I read a sample.

    On an unrelated note, in the King paragraph example above, I confess I was thrown out of the whole paragraph by his reference to Motel 6 and a yellow sign. Unless their brand has changed, Motel 6 signs are blue with red numbering. And I’ve seen paper yellow with age but never a sign. So the feel of that paragraph was lost on me. (yes, I’m overthinking already this morning. LOL!)

  3. Yet another great post to add to my “JSB” writing file. Thank you.

  4. Terrific post, Jim. Fantastic examples. I especially love King and Chandler’s ways of characterizing through description, which really brings their respective passages to life.

    An unexpected action, even (or especially) in a line of dialogue, can really galvanize a scene. Lethargic action on the other hand, such as driving, walking, entering buildings, without anything at stake, is so deadening, as so often pilloried on Mystery Science Theater 3000 🙂 Even rock climbing is boring if there’s no “death stakes.”

    • MST3K is always a welcome allusion, Dale.

      Isn’t rock climbing by definition death stakes? I know it would be for me, which is why I’m a dedicated ground dweller!

      • You’d think rock climbing would be inherently tense, given the physical death states.

        Somehow “Lost Continent” managed to make that inherently dangerous action dull. Even Caesar Romero couldn’t save it 🙂 It’s been a while since I’ve seen that episode, but even if someone did plummet to their doom, it illustrated another thing to avoid—continued repetition of the same action, something I try to avoid.

        • Reminds me of a true story. A Broadway play in the 1920s called “The Squall” was about gypsies in Hungary. There’s a character called Nubi, who comes onstage with the line, “Me Nubi. Me good girl. Me stay here.” Robert Benchley, at the time the drama critic for The New Yorker, reached for his hat and stood up in the theater, announcing: “Me Bobby. Me bad boy. Me go home.”.

  5. I’ve been absent for a while, busy with my day job. Just wanted to add that your blogs are saving me some jams with my writing. Thank you.

    I have a question – in relation to the glass of water you mentioned above. My concern is about being too mellow-dramatic. You might have suggested every scene being based on life-or-death situations. My question, (which I think I know the answer), would pacing the set-up be better at the start of your story before you define the major conflict and related tension? Such as what would come in Act 2.

    I write with the opening disturbance in the mind, but don’t you risk the ‘kick in the shins’ coming in Act 1, before Act 2, if all your Act 1 scenes are a tooth and nail battles? Or should you kick away?

    • Ben, perhaps I could have been more explicit about the “story question” and “death stakes,” as the story question doesn’t kick in until the Doorway of No Return. So while the Act 1 scenes are not necessarily “tooth and nail,” they still should have an Objective and Obstacles.

  6. Good stuff, Jim . . . goin’ into my Learn Me file for sure.

    Here’s a great, tight, descriptive paragraph from Whispers by Dean Koontz:

    Later, when night had fallen above the trees as well as below them, she stopped at a Mexican restaurant on La Cienega Boulevard. Rough beige plaster walls. Photographs of Mexican bandits. The rich odor of hot sauce, taco seasoning, and corn meal tortillas. Waitresses in scoop-necked peasant blouses and many-pleated red skirts. South-of-the-border Muzak. Hillary ate cheese enchiladas, rice, refried beans.

    Even though my head tells me I’ve never been there, I can smell the taco sauce, beans, rice, and cheese just as if I’d eaten there every week when I lived in the LA area.

  7. Perfect timing. I bought a new kindle this weekend and the current lock screen ad/recommendation is for a JSB standalone!

    JDM really did a good job of writing punchy prose with some poetic flair. David Goodis, in all his bleakness, was similar.

    I appreciate these tips because, as I feel I keep mentioning here, my biggest flaw in writing is I over dramatize things on the page and that makes my story drag into boring territory. Really trying to focus on being less boring (what a marketing plan!)

    • Philip, I don’t discourage “overwriting” on a first draft, because you can always cut and pull back. Sometimes you need to do that to find the emotion. But you can also get the knack for “writing lean.” I usually re-read my previous day’s work with that in mind.

  8. Those are wonderful examples, Jim. I remember reading that paragraph from Darker Than Amber and feeling a chill. It wasn’t what I was expecting after the dramatic opening of the book.

    I’m going to take your advice and spend some time today practicing.

  9. Most of this, for me, has to come in edits, second passes, revisions, or my writing would slow to a crawl. The other problem I have is that my characters wouldn’t sound like that, and it comes across too “writerly” for what I’m writing. As the author I try to stay off the page (although I never think or talk in such rich prose myself).
    However, going back and seeing whether every scene is pulling its weight–that’s something I deal with all the time.

    • Of course, how much voice you put in is a matter of taste, Terry. That’s why I used the Amish furniture example. No voice at all. There is a fine line between style and sounding too “writerly.”
      Or as Steven Wright put it, “There’s a fine line between fishing and just standing on the shore like an idiot.”

    • Thanks for writing that, Terry. That makes me feel better about my writing style. My first draft is mainly trying to get the story down. I will go back to add flavor and color as I edit and make multiple passes over the manuscript.

      Jim, always love your stuff! I sat in on your class years ago at the Blue Ridge Mountain Writer’s Conference. You were (and still are) amazing! I would love to do it again. God bless you, friend!

  10. I recently read a collection of Robert Service’s poetry and can attest to his work as a great example of well-done voice, character, and description. His descriptions of the Yukon cause the reader to feel the cold. And he excels at story telling, plot twists, and humor. “The Ballad of Casey’s Billy-Goat” is one of my favorites.

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