Getting Right into the Middle of Things

This month our editors are tackling Fatal Flaw #2: Nothin’ Happenin’. Editor Robin Patchen encourages writers to think about a scene’s purpose in order to determine what information is important to share and where to place that in an active scene playing out in real time. (If you’ve missed the other three posts on this fatal flaw, read them here, here, and here.)

We have to be clear. It’s very important that our readers understand exactly what’s going on at every moment in our story. So we must tell the reader everything that ever happened that led to this scene, whatever it is. That’s the only way the reader will get it, right?

Not exactly.

It’s not that your reader doesn’t care about that stuff. Oh, wait. Yes, that’s exactly what it is. Unless it affects the story, your reader doesn’t care. Not one bit.

Your scenes should begin when the action begins. That’s a tough thing to determine, though. I’m acting right now by typing these words on the page, and I promise you, there isn’t a soul alive who wants a play-by-play of my typos. So how do you know when the scene should begin?

Determine Your Scene’s Purpose

There are lots of ways to think about where to start a scene, but first consider what the purpose of the scene is. What is it you need the reader to learn? Everything in the scene should lead up to that, beginning from the very first sentence.

In the paragraphs that follow, I’m setting up a scene in which my POV character returns home after six years to her grandmother’s house. She has spoken with her grandmother over the years, but she hasn’t been able to get in touch with her since her baby was born two weeks before. The purpose of this scene is first to establish how Reagan feels about her grandmother and how badly she needs the old woman’s help. The twist of the scene is that Gram isn’t there, and Rae has no idea where she is.

BEFORE:

By the time my flight arrived at Kennedy, my nerves were frazzled. Nine hours in the air, and my travel day was just getting started. I stopped at the rest room and changed little Johnny’s diaper. I’d fed him on the flight, so we should have a few hours before he needed to eat again. I grabbed my suitcase from baggage claim, then pulled it to the shuttle stop, where we sat beside a businessman on one side and a woman with two little kids on the other. The older of the two kids, a girl of about eight, kept peeking at Johnny. She reached for him a couple of times, but I asked her not to touch. It was hard enough keeping a two-week-old healthy without her dirty little fingers on him.

Finally, we made it to the bus station, where we boarded a bus to Boston. Four hours later, at South Station, we waited a half an hour, during which time I fed the baby and changed him again, then boarded a bus to New Hampshire.

By the time we reached Manchester, we were both exhausted. We took a taxi to a hotel, where I paid the clerk in cash. We slept late the next day. Then we hired another taxi, which took us to a car dealership I remembered from my youth. I bought an old sedan for five thousand dollars, then went to Walmart and purchased a car seat, more formula, some diapers, and a box of granola bars.

It was after dinnertime by the time we hit the road again. The closer we got to my hometown, the more I looked forward to seeing my grandmother. I hadn’t been home in six years, and I couldn’t wait. Gram was the only person in the world—except for my infant son—who truly loved me. I imagined her wrinkly hands on my cheeks, her sparkling blue eyes welcoming me home. I’d probably scare the old woman to death, pulling in at this late hour. Well, that’s what she got for not charging her cell phone. I’d tried to warn her we were coming.

We drove to Nutfield, passed through town, and turned onto the driveway of my childhood home. The first thing I noticed was that the porch light was off. Gram never turned that off. No lights shone from inside the house, either. The place looked deserted.

 Admit it. You skimmed, didn’t you? If you think reading it was hard, you should’ve tried writing it. When I get bored writing, I know it’s bad.

What’s wrong with it? There’s lots of action. My poor heroine gets no rest—I’m tired just thinking about doing all that travel with a two-week-old baby. But while there’s a lot of action, nothing is happening that moves the story forward. I can think of a couple of ways to fix this. You could try to infuse the passage with emotion. If you add enough internal conflict, you might be able to get away with it. Here’s the second option:

AFTER:

We’d been traveling for two days by the time Johnny and I crossed into Nutfield. Planes, trains, and automobiles—literally. Not to mention a taxi that stunk of body odor and that cheap hotel—the only one that agreed to my cash-up-front, no ID requirement. Just Johnny, me, and the varmints that called it home. All I could think about now was my comfortable bed and my beautiful grandmother. No idea why Gram hadn’t answered the phone. I’d been calling for days. She’d probably forgotten to charge it. A little senility, nothing major. Gram was my rock. My comfort. As soon as we stepped into her house, she’d wrap us in her wrinkled arms and make everything all right.

But when I turned down the driveway to my childhood home, the place looked deserted.

 I hope you found that segment a little less yawn-inducing. How’d I do it? I used that magic button in the top right-hand corner of my keyboard. It’s called “Delete.” I summed up all that travel in a few sentences and added some sensory details to give the reader an idea of the type of travel she’d experienced—no five-star hotels for her. I also upped the tension with a few well-placed phrases, such as “cash-up-front, no ID.” I hope that makes the reader wonder what’s going on.

I introduced her desire to see her grandmother and showed the reader her expectations for that reunion. More tension comes into play with that sentence fragment: “A little senility, nothing major.”  Do you get the sense Reagan is trying to convince herself? Are you as sure as Rae that Gram is fine?

Because of what Rae has invested in her grandmother and her childhood home, when the house is dark, the reader feels that sense of unease. When Reagan steps inside, will Gram be there with open arms?

The “After” segment is 268 fewer words than the “Before,” and it tells readers everything they need to know to set up this scene.

In your manuscript, look for places that are simply telling the reader what’s going on.

Your turn:

How can you tighten them up? How can you add some tension to make even the most mundane paragraphs compelling? Want to share any of your novel’s passages?

15 Responses to “Getting Right into the Middle of Things”

  1. Dennis Kearney February 25, 2015 at 7:43 am #

    Read. Absorb. Re-read.
    This is some of the best advice a budding novelist can acquire.

  2. Christy Distler February 25, 2015 at 9:30 am #

    Excellent reminder that not all action moves the story forward. Great example and advice, Robin!

  3. Robin Patchen February 25, 2015 at 9:50 am #

    Thanks, Christy!

  4. Sara Butler February 25, 2015 at 10:20 am #

    Very timely! I’m going through the first half of my novel now (as I’m snowed in for the 2nd week!) seeing how much fluff I can knock off the beginning of each scene. I particularly like the idea of adding a sensory detail to characterize intervening events that the reader needs to know about but aren’t worth a scene. Thanks!

    • Robin Patchen February 25, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

      Glad it helped, Sara. One little detail can replace a paragraph if it’s written right. Enjoy your editing, if not the snow.

  5. Judy Hudson February 25, 2015 at 11:03 am #

    Just the post I needed to hear today. I am rewriting the opening of my murder to move the body-drop much closer to the beginning. The first book in a series, partners first job together, set in a foreign country and culture, there is so much set-up I could do – and did. And although there was lots of foreshadowing, the body didn’t drop until page 70 in the first draft! It’s a great exercise to see how much of the set-up I need, and how I can (cleverly) feed it in later.
    Thanks for the reminder.

    • Robin Patchen February 25, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

      Sounds like a really interesting story, Judy. You’re wise to try to move the inciting incident as close to the beginning as you can get it.

  6. Rebecca Vance February 25, 2015 at 6:47 pm #

    Great tips to remember! I also would add some dialogue. No one travels anywhere without speaking to, and interacting with, others. This would not only move the story forward, but at the same time, it could show the protagonist’s mood and character.

  7. Jude Wiesner March 1, 2015 at 5:51 pm #

    Tighten, tighten always excellent advice. Every word I cut makes my writing stronger. One exception. Having written an opening paragraph for a scene, my writing mentor challenged me to get deeper into what drives the POV character. For every sentence I was to write a paragraph. What an eye opener. I learned exactly what the character felt and it made her real. Try it.

    • Robin Patchen March 2, 2015 at 6:50 am #

      That’s excellent advice, Jude. When you’re digging into emotions and motivations, you’re bound to make your story stronger.

  8. Catherine Babbitt March 3, 2015 at 12:06 pm #

    Loved the article. I am currently in revision-mode, and your article reminded me to take some time to focus just on the purpose of each chapter I’m working on. Thanks!

  9. steph May 29, 2015 at 11:37 am #

    An excellent post! It was very useful! 🙂

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