Skip the Announcement

Among the welter of influences that television scriptwriting has had on commercial fiction is the very short scene in which a character or two set up an event that will happen later. This sort of device works on the screen, because viewers are used to frequent jump-cutting among micro scenes. On paper, however, such scenes can clog up a novel. That’s because each scene is a story unit, and hopefully each unit is advancing either a character arc or a plot line. The narrative approaches of the two media don’t work the same way.

An announcement that such-and-such is about to do something is what I call a stepping-stone scene. It’s a scene on the way to the scene in which the story is advanced. The problem is, unless the upcoming event is so dramatic that you think you can squeeze anticipatory tension out of an announcement, the reader doesn’t need it. For example, take a six-line scene in which Harry calls Beth to set up a meeting. Why can’t we go directly to the meeting? If you think it’s necessary to provide a link to the previous sequence, you can explain in a passing sentence or two at the beginning of the meeting that Harry had called Beth. Mission accomplished, without the need for an extra scene.

The primary subject of a stepping-stone scene is a phone call (a less effective narrative device in itself), but another culprit is the micro scene set in a car. For instance, Ryan is depicted taking Rosey from the police station to her house. The conversation consists essentially of his asking where she’d like to go, and she says her house. Could the next chapter just start at Rosey’s? We assume that people use a motor vehicle to get from a police station to somebody’s house.

I am not a formalist; I don’t necessarily believe that every scene should have a beginning, middle, and end. Sometimes a one-page scene can emphasize the staccato pace of an action sequence. Yet most parts of a book are not so frantic.  Your scenes need to do the work of moving the story forward. So don’t bother with the announcements. Take us straight to the scene that is going to further our interest in what your characters are doing.

Exercise: Thumb through the manuscript (or, global-search “Chapter”). Do you have any very short scenes? Read what it contains and write a 1-2 sentence synopsis that captures the gist of it. Thumb ahead to the scene that the stepping-stone scene has announced. Look for a good place to drop in that sentence or two. You’ll usually find it within the first narrative paragraph (not dialogue). Then cut the stepping-stone scene and see how the story reads.

“The wastebasket is the writer's best friend.”
—Isaac Bashevis Singer

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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