Thursday, November 4, 2010

Walking To The Story

I was reading Dean Wesley's Smith's blog again today and I came across a term I'd never heard of: "Walking to the story." I can tell you, though, that I know the practice that term refers to very well.

I first learned of it when I took film classes, and our instructor complained about seeing way too many student films where the character wakes up, gets out of bed, brushes his teeth, eats breakfast, gets his car, goes to work.... He forbade students from using those elements in their scripts at all - and nearly half the class complained vociferously that they had a unique story that absolutely had to start with the character doing those things.

What those writers are doing, though, is taking their time in getting to the story. They don't leap into the story, they walk to it. Or maybe schlep to it. Ooze. Crawl.

But the beginning isn't the only place this happens. Anytime there is a transition, the prose might schlep from one place to another, oozing through the business of hanging up the phone and leaving the house and locking the door and walking to the car and getting out the keys and getting in to the car.....

Don't do that.

Unfortunately even advanced writers do it sometimes, in their first drafts. And for a rough draft it might be fine. It's a kind of exploratory writing. You move your characters around, get to know them, warm your way into the scene. It's a place where you find the mood or voice and set things up. But that's a warm up. It's like practicing scales. You don't do that on stage with the audience and orchestra waiting.

That isn't to say that transitional moments can never be important, or even be good writing. Sometimes they are a critical part of the story - as in Psycho when Janet Leigh decides to take a shower. In a moment like that, the trivial actions of your character must take on a new and critical weight.

This is what I was talking about on Halloween, when I wrote about how details have to carry their weight. They need to be interesting, they need to set the pace and tone and voice, and they need to give us information. Sometimes when they don't actually carry the story forward, you can still get away with it, but if you do, it had better be a real piece of virtuoso writing. It had better knock the reader's socks off.

Because of all the rules out there, there is one absolute rule of writing: Thou shalt not bore the reader.

The crazy thing is, these sections that bore the reader might actually bore you too. These are sometimes the spots where you get stuck. You try to figure out what to put in this transition between the phone call and the confrontation, and you can't think of anything and it's all so boring.... Well, the key is to remember - don't walk through. Cut to the chase!

In the meantime, Crit Dare Update: I read about five more chapters of a manuscript because I want to give my comments in perspective. I also came up with a marvelous idea for a darling I don't want to cut, but I have to stop and think about what other weight it can carry.


Thomas Brookside said...


I completely agree here.

I try to make it a rule that if a character is traveling or undertaking any prosaic task, and it's actually being described, it's because there's something he sees while doing so that it's critical the reader see either for plot purposes or background purposes.

A good story to disassemble to see how this can be done well is "A Christmas Carol". It opens up with a series of the "boring" incidents you list: characters go in and out of offices, exchange pleasantries and not-so-pleasantries, put coal on a fire, drink, eat a meal, walk home, go to bed, etc. - but every one of those minor incidents includes a detail that serves the plot, the setting, or the characterization. Nothing just "happens" merely to tie scenes together or make transitions.

Anonymous said...

Like I told a writer friend "never describe a hallway."