What Is Implicit

The early phase of a novel features a good deal of what I call “setup” material. An author needs to put the reader’s feet on the ground in a fictional world. That includes establishing the settings and providing backgrounds for the major characters. For the story to have any richness, such work is vital. Yet authors can write these pieces as though their audience has never inhabited a similar setting or met a similar character type. The result can be yawns of recognition. How do you know what should go and what should stay?

A good rule of thumb is: use what is fresh. Does your setting have interesting or exotic features that set it apart? For instance, mention the swaying palm trees in a passing sentence, but dig in on the driftwood shelter a beach bum has built. With characters, use quick strokes to lay down a stormy relationship of the father and daughter over driving the family car. Get to the friend who has snuck into the car and pops out when they leave the driveway. 

What writers forget, in the dark of the lonely study, is that readers are bombarded with settings and character relationships all the time, from Sesame Street onward. Say, you want to lay down the setting of a high school. Do you think I know how tedious an oral book report is? You bet I do—and you can summarize the whole scene in one sentence. Go straight to the scene where the student pulls out the quart of Colt .45. 

If you want to establish a cool student browbeating a loser, do it in one scene or two. Past that you are merely trading on sympathy that is already running thin. The reader has probably read a dozen articles or stories on bullying. Instead, you should decide whether you are going to build the relationship during the course of the book, until the loser hopefully shoots the bully, or move on with either of the two to create new heights for them elsewhere. 

Burrowing down into a story objective is the only way to make the ordinary interesting. If you lay the groundwork for a relationship that will build over a series of 20 scenes, you can use reader recognition of certain plot turns or characteristics as ways to involve them more deeply. Even then, keep trying to surprise us with the endless complexity of the human species.

Exercise: You can test out whether a setup scene works by deleting it entirely. Wait two weeks and then read the 20 pages before it and after it. What missing ingredients do you feel are vital for the reader to know? Read over the scene and pick out the necessary pieces. Then place them in another scene. Wait two weeks and read that passage again. Do you still think you need the scene?

“Perhaps there is no agony worse than the tedium I experienced waiting for Something to Happen.” —Lance Loud

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.