If Time Must Be Taken, Take Time

When you’re focusing on tightening up a story, things might not look simple.  In first drafts, I tend to write comedic interludes as filler scenes between stages of a journey or a project.  The journey needs time in order to finish, so why not fill that time with something?

Great reasoning, Sherlock, but you’re going about it the wrong way.

When I go back to edit, then, I try to delete all such filler scenes to tighten up the plot and keep the pace high.  I just highlight that conversation about caterpillars and delete it.  In order to keep the narrative flowing, I might modify the sentences before and after the filler scene so it reads well.  Unfortunately, that means a four-hour wait goes something like this:

They waited four hours, but no one showed up.  Disheartened, they left.

Does the reader feel the wait?  No.  Do you feel the wait?  No.  Both of you know the wait was there, but it doesn’t really seem real.  That’s one example of telling instead of showing.

So how to fix that?  You could describe the wait in “real time”, make the narrative as boring as the wait is– but that’s just going to drop your audience.  You need something in there to show that this was a long wait without making it boring.

Thus, I write comedic filler scenes about caterpillars.  I write a conversation that means absolutely nothing to the story; it just exists.  It might have the purpose of filling an empty section, but other than that, it’s useless.

It should be fairly obvious by now what must be done.  Instead of filling that space with irrelevant content, fill it with (gasp!) relevant content!

Instead of telling knock-knock jokes, have a meaningful conversation with your sidekick.  Instead of pulling up grass for four hours (which is still handy as a way to show how bored they are even in the midst of an interesting conversation), have them train with swords, practice with magic, or compare notes from their history class.  Multitasking works just as well in fiction as it does in reality.

There’s something called the scene-sequel format that I may have mentioned before.  It basically means you structure your story in pairs of scenes– one is an action scene, one is a sequel to that in which they figure out what happened in the action.  It works as contrast between action and rest.

However, you always want at least one scene for every sequel.  You never want a scene-sequel-sequel.  One sequel per scene.  You can have a scene-scene-sequel, but even that is pushing it.  You want a balance between action and inaction.

If you try to have a waiting scene, then a conversation scene, you’re putting two sequels in a row where they shouldn’t be.  Instead of that, put the two together and have one superpowered sequel between two action scenes.

The point is, waiting scenes are good– you want to show the time spent waiting for something to happen.  However, you never want to make the wait boring, nor do you want to make the wait irrelevant.  You want to make the wait seem just as important as the thing you’re waiting for.  Multitask.

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33 Comments

  1. Good post. I have heard of this scene-sequel thing before, though I haven’t really played with it. My stories tend to have too much action and far too little narrative, which is one of the things I’m trying to fix in Noxumbra, so I shall keep this in mind.

    Reply
    • There’s something called “action fatigue”. You’ve probably experienced it. It’s when you’re watching a three-hour-long movie where your superhero of choice beats up minion after minion, with no breaks in between. That’s what happens when you leave out the sequels.

      Reply
  2. You have found a something I don’t like thinking about. Well, thinking about it when I don’t know what should happen. I can do explaining scenes and my waiting scenes are okay, but when it comes to a quest… and you really can’t just say “They walked for three days.” and I don’t know what should happen in those three days…

    Reply
    • That’s where my rule about ducks and explosions comes into play. It doesn’t mean just ducks and explosions– it means that dangers that are irrelevant to the plot are still dangers. Just because the main character isn’t specifically fighting this faction of guerrilla warriors doesn’t mean he can’t be attacked by them. This was something Brian Jacques always did well in questy books. They’d be walking along for a while, then they’d run into the tribe of painted weasels with poison darts. The painted weasels had nothing to do with the evil overlord trying to conquer Redwall Abbey for the umpteenth time, but it’s still a plot twist.

      Reply
  3. This scene-sequel thing sounds fascinating! I may have to work with that. Sometimes I get a little too far into the idea of having the audience get bored and miserable along with the characters, to get them in on the mood, but then I realise I can show my characters getting moody and bored in a much easier fashion, and don’t need to drag the reader’s brain out through their ears to get them to feel the characters’ tedium.

    Also, filling the slower spaces with less action-packed material is a brilliant idea. Not in the least because all that stuff has to be done, but a good way to get more reluctant readers through it is to mix it in with the whizz-bang action tidbits. Bit of both makes for a much better overall flavour 😉

    Reply
    • Yep. A spoonful of action makes the dialogue go down, as Mary Poppins once said. I think.

      Reply
      • That or Winston Churchill. When in doubt, he says most things.

      • Yes. Wasn’t he the first person to say “To be or not to be”? Then Shakespeare copied him.

      • OMG yeah that Shakespeare was such a plagiarist. Bet he got “To Be Or Not To Be” off Sylvester Stallone or something.

      • It’s a pity he’s so famous. He gets his own bookshelf at libraries and bookstores, but he’s really just a thief. He totally stole Hamlet’s plot from the Lion King.

      • Totally. I’m surprised Stephanie Meyer hasn’t sued for all the plagiarism in “Romeo and Juliet”.

      • “Et tu, Brute?” was first said by a famous contestant in an eating competition, wherein he saw his opponent (called Brute) eat two pies where he could only eat one. Then Shakespeare messed with the spelling and called it Latin.

      • Ohmygosh that man is terrible.

      • Isn’t he just? I hear he just forced Joss Whedon to produce one of his plays.

      • I wonder if Whedon will cope any better than M. Night Shyamalan. It was directing Shakespeare’s blasted airbender movie that ruined him, you know!

      • I didn’t know! Such a respectable director, too… Shakespeare even tried to pin the Avengers as his own work, but I think Whedon bribed him with this new play.

      • Oh yes! I bet Shakespeare was dead jealous he didn’t think of “Much Ado About Nothing” first!

      • And then he went and made much ado about nothing, too. He ought to have paid royalties.

      • Ohemgee, totally!

      • Speaking of which, I might see Much Ado About Nothing this week. We’ll see. (Let’s hope Shakey doesn’t try to crash the party.)

      • Do, do! It’s a fantastic work – are you seeing the Whedon update? Apparently it’s great. Enjoy!

      • I missed the chance.

      • Did you? That was careless. You had a dirty great stick to hit it with too.

      • I know, I know, but I completely forgot. I was forced to go see the Beach Boys instead… aged to perfection at 70 years.

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