Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. Last week we talked about plot units, which is to say, I ranted like a toothless cough mixture-swigging old man swearing at pigeons in a train station. Basically I went out to bat for plot, and its imagined enemies.
This week I want to introduce a second, related principle. Again, you can apply this to each scene and to the novel as a whole. It solves a problem most writers encounter in their first draft, but it does require eating into that precious word count.
Here is the concept: in late, out early. Start your scene/novel as late into the action as you can, and finish it as early as you can.
Again and again I hear authors say ‘I’m writing a trilogy, so I need time to establish the characters,’ or ‘I want to make sure I’ve set the scene so when the story starts the reader will care about it’. Nonsense. You start the story on page one. The best way to establish character is on the move. Put them under pressure – in an argument, in an earthquake, lying to their spouse, at an awkward dinner with their employer. These situations will reveal the kind of person they are.
Kafka’s Metamorphosis doesn’t kick off by introducing us to the Samsa family, establishing tensions, Gregor’s closeness to his sister, his unhappiness at work, financial pressures, then – having ensured we know and care about the cast – have him mutate into a beetle around the end of chapter 3. We discover all these things once the story is in motion – adversity reveals character, reveals it far more powerfully and convincingly than straight exposition can.
Similarly, once your scene or novel has hit its climax, wrap things up quick. The closer your climax and the ending are, the more impact they will have. The 39 Steps and The Lord Of The Flies both keep their high-stakes suspense going until the very last page, with just a paragraph or two to round up. The same applies to literary fiction – your story/scene has no responsibility to wind down gently, stacking chairs, sweeping the floor and giving one final glance around before switching off the lights. Exit at your most resonant moment – leave it hanging in the air, like an unresolved chord. If your genuine aim is to write intelligent, adult fiction, then don’t treat your readers as dolts. Don’t spoonfeed them. Leave them interpretative space.
Beware of portions of text that are just acting as a kind of taxi service: ‘She left the house and walked to the bus stop yawning. When the bus pulled up she handed the grumpy driver her ticket then ambled to the back, slumping into her seat. The streets outside were grey and freezing. She blew clouds of condensation on the glass and drew a frowning face.’ No, no, no! Cut all that, and start halfway through her morning at work when the argument kicks off. Your readers are intelligent and, if you leave a line break to indicate a new scene, they will fill in the blanks. No one’s going to think: ‘Hang on? How did she get to work? And it’s suddenly eleven thirty! Is she a teleporting time traveller?’
In your first draft, it’s fine to have all this additional connective tissue, because you’re writing your way into the story and discovering the world and characters for yourself, but when it becomes time to revise, you have no excuse. The more you can cut, the better your story will be.
Scenes that outstay their welcome and novels that open while the characters are still limbering up for the main event stem from a lack of confidence. I’m not convinced it’s something that you, as a writer, can ever completely outgrow. It’s why a writer needs to gather about her a cohort of wise, honest friends who can read extracts and report back: ‘Uh, kind of bored here,’ or ‘This, for me, was where the story started.’
If you’d like me to have a squiz at your first page on this here blog, why not send it to me? I’m looking for your very best work, please – no first drafts or rough ideas. I’d like to be engaging with you at the top of your game, otherwise I’ll just be telling you what you already know. If I get round to critiquing your first page (I get sent a lot – sorry I can’t manage them all!) then it will appear on this blog, along with my feedback, so by sending it to me you are granting permission for me to publish it on this blog forever.
Send your first page to me by clicking the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right. No more than one page, with a title and your name. No synopsis/explanatory blather please! I’ll be dismantling a new first page on the blog next week. Till then, bon chance brave warriors. May your cuts be many and deep.
If you enjoyed this, I expect you’ll enjoy my award-winning book on writing, publishing, and crushing disappointment, We Can’t All Be Astronauts.
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