First of all, I apologize but I’m going to take this opportunity to just give a shout out for the release of my third book, The Dark and Hollow Places which will be coming out from Delacorte Press March 22, 2011 (less than two weeks!). I’m leaving for tour soon and if any of y’all live near any of the stops I’d love to say hi!
But I promise that small bit of self-promotion wasn’t completely off topic because in this post I want to talk about skipping time. I’ve been asked a lot recently about how it feels to have my first series draw to a close and it’s very surreal because it really does seem like just yesterday when I sold the first book. When I think back over the past several years I think it can almost be summed up with a *** — that little symbol you insert in your manuscript to indicate an nondescript passage of time.
The *** is a very very handy symbol (I believe in short stories it’s often a # symbol) — an easy way to just skip ahead in time. Not too long ago I was reading contest entries from unpublished writers and I noticed a common thread: the compulsion to show every detail of a character’s life. And trust me, this is something that I’ve dealt with first hand in my own writing (and actually, it wasn’t until I was judging a batch of contest entries several years ago that I became aware of this issue).
The thing is, as writers we really don’t have to show everything. Our readers are smart and they can put stuff together. For example, a lot of the contest entries I’ve been reading are YA and set in school. We see the character in class, walking out of class, at her locker, changing out books, walking to the cafeteria. This is all stuff that every student does almost every day. But some of these scenes don’t pull their weight — they don’t add anything to the story — and so they can drag.
I’ll also see these scenes as “connections,” i.e.: I have to get my character from her house to the bowling alley where she discovers the dead body so I need to show her finding her keys, getting in the car, driving, stopping at the light, taking the left on Park Road, looking for a parking spot, etc. We feel the compulsion to write these details because they’re true — our character WOULD be going through those motions and it’s hard not to want to follow along with them.
Except that… often those scenes are boring. And more importantly, they’re not necessary. They don’t add what I call “weight” to the book. I think every scene has to pull its weight and even better, it has to serve multiple purposes. It’s always important to ask ourselves “Why is this here and what does it add?” For that first example at school, maybe there’s a note slipped into the protag’s locker and so it’s important we see her there. Maybe the cafeteria scene sets up the social hierarchy which will play a pivotal role in the book. Maybe in the second example the character missing the green light means she didn’t arrive at the bowling alley in time to save the victim’s life.
But at the end of the day, those scenes have to matter. Here’s the test: if you can delete those scenes and the story still makes sense… they’re not pulling their weight. If the story mostly makes sense, they’re often not pulling their weight (for example, if barely missing the green light causes the character to get outrageously angry which is important for character development, consider bringing that trait out in another necessary scene and having that scene then pull double duty).
For me personally, this wasn’t easy advice to incorporate into my own writing. It wasn’t until I started experimenting with The Forest of Hands and Teeth and I forced myself to be as minimal as possible did I begin to understand how useful the *** is. It’s really easy to drag a scene out past its purpose or to enter a scene too early. But often if you sit back and think, “Why is this scene important? What purpose does it serve for the story? What’s the latest I can enter this scene and the earliest I can leave?” then you’ll start to learn how to use the *** to your advantage (when revising I call it the “blah blah blah” moment — when that’s what you start to think about in a scene, skip ahead).
Some examples: when I was writing a recent book I found myself writing a scene that seemed lackluster. It was three people arguing about having to get a first aid kit and what it looked like and where it was and blah blah blah. Which, in some cases, could be important. But it wasn’t important to what I was writing at all. And the characters kept repeating the same arguments and the whole thing was just meh going in circles. Finally I just decided that I would skip ahead and my first thought was “I can’t! I have to explain to the reader everything so they can follow along!” Bah! Such an easy trap to fall into! In that scene the first aid kit wasn’t important, what it looked like and even getting it — none of it was important! What was important was the protag sewing up someone’s wound and I didn’t have to spend 10 pages getting her the supplies she needed. Going through all the motions just felt like the logical next step but it’s like sending your character to her locker because that’s what kids do before going to lunch — if the important scene is the lunch scene, who cares about the lockers!
Here’s a movie example… in Independence Day Will Smith shoots down that alien and he gets the ship open and punches out the alien. We don’t see him struggle with getting it out of the ship, getting it wrapped up in the parachute, starting on the journey — we don’t see any of it even though it had to happen. We just see him walking alone in the desert dragging the thing because that’s what’s important. The details would drag and it wasn’t that kind of movie (it would be a different movie if Will took his time examining the alien, trying to figure it out, etc — but that wasn’t his character).
I’ve become a particular fan of skipping time in my short stories when there’s not the luxury of exposition. Here one of my short stories, Flotsam & Jetsam, for free online where you can see what I’m talking about. I was a big fan of the *** in that story.
I’m not saying you should zip merrily through your manuscript hitting only the highlights of the plot. But pay attention when you’re writing that stuff that you feel like HAS to be there and ask yourself if it really does. And if it does, make sure the scene pulls its weight.