March 12, 2012

The Significant Scenes I Didn't Write

As I work through revising the latest chunk of manuscript, I've been noticing that often the parts I leave out of the story are very important events to the characters, if I consider them as real people. But since they're fictional creations of a sadistic author, these significant scenes sometimes take place off the page. And it's not because in a moment of kindness I'm giving the characters some privacy for their big moments. The reason these events occur during the chapter breaks or in summary is that sometimes, the important episodes are repetitive or boring on the page.

You've probably seen a movie in which something tragic happens, or a character does something terrible, and when the bad news has to be broken to another character, the camera pulls back and the soundtrack covers the conversation, so all we get is the initial tears or expression of horror before the scene cuts away. The rest of the breaking-the-bad-news scene so often occurs offscreen for a couple of reasons. First, if the audience already saw the event in question, another scene in which the same event is described would only be a weaker rehashing. Second, unless the character is going to react to the news in an unusual manner, the audience can accurately imagine the grief or anger that's sure to occur, and leaving it to the imagination may be more powerful than what the script and acting could portray.

Along similar lines, I was recently trying to figure out how much to include of the fallout from my narrator's bad behavior. He did something stupid that was going to upset his wife, and I'd planned on a scene where she confronts him about it, but then I started having second thoughts. As in the breaking-the-bad-news example, a scene in which characters discuss the events of the previous scene is dangerously repetitive. I'd already given readers enough information about the characters that they could imagine how this conversation would go. So maybe it was better to leave it out.

That felt kind of strange, though, especially when I started thinking about how for the characters as people, this conversation and its impact on their relationship would be a lot more significant than the event that prompted the conversation. But I realized that's okay. Throughout the story, I gloss over important moments for this couple, such as their wedding, while dwelling on conflicts they might later forget about. Crafting a good story is all about deciding what to leave out, and it's not only the mundane occurrences that fail to move the plot forward.

As it turned out, I did give my characters a chance to deal with the narrator's actions on the page. After a bit of summary in which I established that there was a week of unproductive arguing during the chapter break, and then hinted that maybe things were improving, somebody got drunk and finally said what they'd really wanted to say. Things are in motion now, both for the relationship and the plot. And I'm not entirely certain it's going to end up where I need it to, but that's a topic for another time.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Christopher Gronlund advises writers, Don't Answer Every Question: "There's often a tendency to answer everything as we write in an effort to ensure we get our points across. If the question isn't a big thing, though, it’s usually best to leave the smaller questions unanswered."


Christopher Gronlund said...

"Crafting a good story is all about deciding what to leave out"

It can be so hard to do, but when done well, the stories that do it are so often the stories I remember. I'm currently reading The Night Swimmer, and the author--Matt Bondurant--often takes a scene right up to that moment where others keep writing and walks away, giving the reader just enough. And it's those moments in the book that stick with me because there's enough provided that my feelings are able to fill in the blanks.

One other thing he does that is interesting to me: he sometimes mentions characters as though the reader already knows them. Some people might find it unsettling, but to me it's a really neat little thing. The narrator visits an island in SW Ireland frequently, so she would know of most of the people there. Instead of a front-loaded introduction to the character--explaining who they are--it's a given that in the months spent visiting the island that she'd know the person. So some characters are introduced with the assumption that she knows of them, and through the encounters, the reader can piece together more about them.

What writers leave out of stories fascinates me. With author websites, I'd love to see more pages that are like bonus features on DVDs, showing what was cut out or never made it to the page. Yesterday I was talking with a friend about the early drafts of the last novel I finished. He didn't know that it was an entirely different book and all the characters and story lines that were removed.

I'd love to see more about what people leave out and why they left things out. It's something that really fascinates me.

As always, thank you for mentioning one of my entries. It's good to see you back to blogging after your short break.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks, Christopher, for a comment with lots to ponder. I've been working hard on figuring out when to stop each scene, and I think I'm getting better at finding that sweet spot when I've said enough without saying too much.

I'm also fascinated to hear authors talking about what they left out or significantly changed in revision. I recently read THE YIDDISH POLICEMAN'S UNION by Michael Chabon (I'll be posting about it tomorrow), and in a profile reprinted at the back of the book, he says he wrote a first draft of the novel that contained the same characters but a completely different plot. I love those stories!

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