I read an interview not long ago (although now I can’t find the link) with James Patterson. Wherein Patterson explains how he sells a bagillion books a year. The ‘secret’ is that he leaves the boring stuff out of his stories. By doing so, his stories are fast reads, the action never slows and presumably the reader never gets bored.
While Patterson has other systems that enable him to churn out multiple best sellers yearly that as a reader I’m not crazy about, I tend to side with him on the boring stuff.
If you read or write, you know what I’m talking about. The passages we all skim or skip over entirely when reading a book.
- Because we want to get to the juicy stuff.
- Because the color of curtains or that the fabric came from some middle eastern blip of a country that employs child laborers because their tiny hands are just the right size for the intricate pattern interrupts the action.
- We want to know where the bad guy is hiding.
- Or if she’s going to say yes to the good guy or the bad boy.
- Or how our hero is going to get out of the elevator careening toward the underground parking garage from the penthouse suite.
Curtains – schmurtains – gimme the action.
And Patterson isn’t the only famous author who proscribes to the philosophy of boring free stories:
Ernest Hemingway: “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration.”
Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts readers skip.”
Mark Twain: “A successful book is not made of what is in it, but what is left out of it.”
Alfred Hitchcock: “Drama is life with the dull parts left out.”
Italo Calvino: “I have tried to remove weight, sometimes from people, sometimes from heavenly bodies, sometimes from cities; above all I have tried to remove weight from the structure of stories and from language.”
Truman Capote: “I believe more in the scissors than I do in the pencil.”
Is the Narrative necessary or in the way?
As much as I admire (and envy) Pat Conroy’s skills with prose (among others, say, Dean Koontz for example) as a reader I really don’t need to know:
- The origin of the wallpaper
- All about our heroine’s first period
- The play by play on how our hero makes a sandwich.
“But,” you say, “we must have narrative. We must have a sense of space. We must know what the characters look like. We must know the character’s back story. Right?”
Well of course we must have a sense of those things. (Except, back story – very tricky thing, stops the action, takes us off the timeline – a light hand there methinks.) Otherwise our characters are floating free style in space with no anchors or landmarks.
But maybe inference is a better approach than full on assault. Perhaps finding one definitive aspect of a room so the reader’s imagination can fill in the blanks. Could your heroine be a tall, cool, blonde without my having to know how tall, her dress size, her dietary restrictions and the nasty fight she had with her sister when she was five, at the outset?
The whole idea in writing fiction is to show not tell, right? I think that some writers feel they must show the whole room, rather than the really important parts.
I also think that writers have an incessant need to use all their research. I mean, heck, they went to the trouble to research, it seems only fair to let them use it, right? I mean, it is kind of a bitch to spend weeks researching something and maybe only devote a few sentences to it. But then that’s what writing is about. Finding out what you need to know to write the story – it doesn’t necessarily follow that your reader needs to know it too, right?
If you’re not sure you could ask yourself the following questions:
- Does it stop the action?
- Does it make the story drag or go off in a direction not relevant to moving the story forward?
- Will it matter to your reader?
- If it wasn’t there, would your reader miss it?
- Is it a necessary detail for your reader to know to follow the story?
- Will it annoy your reader who is up past midnight reading your story to find out what happens next but she can’t find out until she reads the seven pages of description?
Even Best Sellers Might be Surprised
This week I finished a book by one of my favorite writers (who is famous and has written a ton of best sellers). The last hundred pages were riveting. Except for the parts that I had to skim through to get to what the fuck happened and who the hell did it. After I finished the book I actually wondered what he’d think if he knew that I skipped (easily) 50 plus pages of his novel because all that technical crap bores the hell out of me. I also wondered how much time he spent writing those unread, quickly skimmed pages. Maybe he could have finished the book a month early if not for those pages and the edits and the rewrites, etc. And his readers would have been none the wiser. Maybe not. It’s something to think about.
Only you know what your story is. What you want to say. What’s important to your characters. But your readers will decide is it’s important to them. Maybe a little less boring stuff and a little more action is just what they’re looking for.
Writer or reader, what do you think about leaving in or leaving out the boring stuff? I’d be interested in knowing.