How to Avoid the Boring
by Mindee Arnett
One of the best and most amusing writing tips I’ve ever heard comes from the king of dialogue and characters himself, Elmore Leonard. It’s number 10 in his 10 Rules of Writing and it goes something like this:
Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.
That’s some pretty sound advice, yes? Of course, the trouble is figuring out what those parts are, and to the best of my knowledge, Mr. Leonard does not offer any real clarification here. It’s up to the writer to figure it out.
I suppose one way to do it is to evaluate your own reading habits. But for me, this doesn’t work. I don’t skip anything in a book. If I’m engaged by the story, I read everything. If I’m not, I set it aside and move onto the next one in my enormous To Be Read pile. That sounds pretty cold, I know, but there are just too many books out there for me to waste time on one that doesn’t hold my attention.
The solution then becomes for me to use my own level of enthusiasm when writing the story in order to identify the parts that I should skip, the boring parts, in other words. And considering how many times I’ve heard other writers—both aspiring and published—say something along the lines of “I dread writing this scene and wish I could hurry up to the next one because it’ll be so much more fun,” I’m pretty sure this solution might be useful across the board.
It makes sense, right? I mean at it’s most basic level, this is what Mr. Leonard is getting at—if the writer is bored by the scene then the reader surely will be, too.
The problem with this, however, is that writers have individual preferences toward their favorite parts of storytelling. Some writers love action scenes, while others live for the kissy-kissy romance stuff, or humorous dialogue exchanges, and so on. Given this preferential tendency, it can be challenging for a writer to determine if his/her lack of enthusiasm for a particular scene is because it’s not their favorite thing to write in general or if it’s because the scene really is boring and full of suckage.
Whenever I’m faced with this conundrum, the first thing I do is decide whether or not the scene is even necessary. Here are two questions I try to answer:
1. Does the scene pull double duty? If the scene doesn’t aid in the development of two or more aspects of the story (e.g. character development, main plot development, subplot, development, etc.) then something is wrong. Either the scene can be scrapped entirely or it needs to be reworked so as to accomplish more than it currently is.
2. Can the scene be easily summarized? If what happens in the scene can be summarized in a paragraph or two, then I will most likely skip it. Such a small summary can be passed onto the reader in the next scene easily. One of the most common candidates for this is any scene that involves travel. Travel can almost always be summarized, especially if the reader knows where the characters are going. Unless the story in question is a traditional “hero’s quest,” the reader probably doesn’t care how the characters arrived at their destination. They want to know what’s going to happen once the characters get there.
For example in my latest WIP, I had a long action sequence whose only purpose was to get the characters into place to accomplish their primary goal—a goal that the reader is aware of from the beginning of the story. This action scene wasn’t important in terms of the overall story, and I realized it after several days of struggling to write it. I just couldn’t find the enthusiasm for it, which is a clear sign of trouble. The solution? I cut it and give a brief summary of the events at the start of the next scene.
Often, once I’ve asked these two questions I’ve already decided to just skip the scene, but not always. There are some scenes that really are important but which are fundamentally less fun to write. When faced with this situation, my solution then becomes to find a way to make the scene more interesting for me to write.
For example, in The Nightmare Affair, there is a scene where the main characters meet up to discuss potential suspects behind the murders taking place on campus. The scene could not be summarized easily, and it also pulls double duty. It perpetuates the main plot of the murder mystery, the romantic subplot (to a small degree), and it’s crucial to some of my MC’s character development. But the scene itself was originally pretty flat and boring. The characters just sat around and talked for a couple of pages. And during revisions I dreaded reading through it (again my own lack of enthusiasm for a scene is always a sign of trouble).
To remedy the problem, I added in a humorous element, involving one of the characters and a chair that has more or less come to life thanks to all the magic going on around it at the school. In the book this phenomenon is called “animation,” and I could add it in easily because the animation effect had been established early on in the book. This relatively minor addition transformed the scene completely. It went from boring to one of my favorite scenes in the book.
For me, adding in a funny element is always my first choice in spicing up a less interesting scene. Of course, humor isn’t always appropriate. In these cases, I sometimes focus on the writing itself. I try to make it powerful or beautiful or intoxicating. I put in anything I can that will make me look forward to rereading it later.
Some other tactics I’ve used are: can it be told from a different POV? Is there some snippet of personal history about a character that the reader might enjoy discovering at this juncture? Does it take place in a unique setting that will intrigue the reader through vivid details? And so.
So there you have it. If you’re unenthusiastic about writing a scene in your WIP, examine it closely for the reason why. If you can skip it, then do so—you and the reader will be happier. If you can’t skip it, then try reimagining the scene; manipulate it until it’s not boring.
About the Author
Mindee Arnett lives on a horse farm in Ohio with her husband, two kids, a couple of dogs, and an inappropriate number of cats. She’s addicted to jumping horses and telling tales of magic, the macabre, and outer space. She has far more dreams than nightmares.
Her debut Contemporary Fantasy The Nightmare Affair, the first book of The Arkwell Academy Series, released in March 2013 from Tor Teen (Macmillan). And her YA sci-fi thriller Avalon will hit shelves 2014 from Balzer + Bray (HarperCollins).
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About the Book
16-year-old Dusty Everhart breaks into houses late at night, but not because she’s a criminal. No, she’s a Nightmare.
Being the only Nightmare at Arkwell Academy, a boarding school for magickind, and living in the shadow of her mother’s infamy, is hard enough, but when Dusty sneaks into Eli Booker’s house, things get a whole lot more complicated. He’s hot, which means sitting on his chest and invading his dreams couldn’t get much more embarrassing.
But it does.
Eli is dreaming of a murder. The setting is Arkwell.
And then his dream comes true.
Now Dusty has to follow the clues–both within Eli’s dreams and out of them–to stop the killer before more people turn up dead. And before the killer learns what she’s up to and marks her as the next target.
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