Elmore Leonard once famously included in his Ten Rules of Writing “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
The hard part for a writer, of course, is to figure out what those parts are. The first volume of In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust spends a lot of time noodling about remembering how a specific cake tastes and ruminating on things like sleeping habits—and if you haven’t read it, trust me when I say you spend the first few dozen pages or so wondering how in the world you got suckered into reading it. And then, IMHO, it clicks into place and you begin to really enjoy it, but there’s a bit of a hump to get over, and that hump could very easily look like he included a part that people skip.
And, certainly, many thousands of people have indeed skipped reading Proust, much to their delight and relief. And loss.
One common question I get when talking to writers at conferences and events and occasionally when I come home to find them hiding in my closet with a roll of duct tape and a bottle of chloroform is “does every scene and line need to be dramatic?” In other words, how do you tell a story that feels real if you don’t offer up the sort of mundane details that Leonard seems to be advising you to skip? You can’t tell a story that is 100% people fighting, saying witty things, and blowing things up. Or, sure, you can, but it would just be … well … kind of awesome, actually. But! Not really a story. So how do you write about characters who feel real without including some of the boring bits that we all deal with?
The answer’s surprisingly simple in concept, although complex in execution: You’re not supposed to skip the boring parts, you’re supposed to find a way to make the boring parts not boring.
So how do you do that? Ah, that’s where your unique and individual talent comes into play, isn’t it? That’s always the thing about writing; you can discuss technique in the abstract, but it’s always down to your ability to engage, entertainment, and startle with your words. But! We can start with a few basic concepts for making the boring parts not boring:
- Everything in your story should be accomplishing something—character development, plot advancement, elegant backstory supply, etc. If you’ve got a scene of someone taking a shower and getting ready to go out, make sure we learn something from it or it moves the story along in some concrete way.
- Mundane activities like that are also ripe for a tiny bit of experimentation. Find a way of making the mundane interesting. Taking a shower? What’s the character singing? WHAT ARE THEY WEARING?
- Ask yourself if you’re just spinning wheels. If you’re writing because you don’t know what happens next, stop. Start writing the next bit of the story you know will happen. It’s possible, when you read through it weeks or months later, you’ll decide you don’t need anything in-between at all.
As with most writing advice, it’s best not to take it too literally, or to assume it always applies. Being too rigid trying to follow every piece of advice will just make you crazy, and your work will suffer.
Of course, if you’ve ever written a book you know the worst case scenario: Realizing there are only boring parts in the book. And that’s why we drink.