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:
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.
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.
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?
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.”