Alan Orloff at A Million Blogging Monkeys had a great post last week dealing with scene pacing. As he mentioned, it’s best to start a scene late in the action and end the scene early.
Otherwise, our characters start doing boring things.
My characters love doing boring things. I let them have their way with the manuscript on the first draft, but for the second? They’re not having pointless phone conversations anymore. They’re not walking to the front door, putting on their jacket, and strolling out to the car.
We don’t have to be with the character every step of the way in a book. We don’t have to sit with them through their meals, watch them do their dishes. We don’t have to be there when they go to bed at night or wake up in the morning.
Instead, we can start scenes in the middle of the action.
So instead of having my Memphis BBQ protagonist Lulu get dressed in a floral dress, eat a bowl of Fruit Loops, happily sing along with the radio, arrive at her Aunt Pat’s barbeque restaurant, and discover a body, I could do this instead:
Lulu unlocked the door to the restaurant, reached in, and fumbled for the lights, still humming that tune from South Pacific. Her keys hit the wooden floor with a clunk. There was a body in a pool of blood smack dab in the middle of the dining room.
The reader just assumes that Lulu got ready for her day. I don’t have to shadow Lulu while she decides which of her dozen floral dresses she’s going to put on for the day. The reader assumes that Lulu has gotten dressed. They know she didn’t just show up for work unclothed. And she probably had something to eat, too.
Okay, let’s say we’re spanning two days. We have one event that happens in the early evening (say Lulu finds a clue), then we have something that happens the next afternoon (a suspect is taken in for questioning.)
So Lulu has made a major discovery pertaining to the case. It’s a clue…or maybe a red herring, we don’t know yet. This is a very exciting development for the case. But I’m going to water down that exciting moment if I suddenly go into documentary mode and follow Lulu home, have Lulu turn in, have some time-filling stuff going on all the next morning, lunch, and early afternoon. I’ve just killed my exciting moment.
Instead, I’ll have Lulu’s world rocked. She’s discovered a clue—and it points to the guilt of someone close to her. Lulu’s stomach knots up. End of scene.
How do I transition to the next scene, nearly twenty-four hours later? Very simply: The next afternoon, Lulu was cleaning up after the lunch rush when two police officers strode into the restaurant.
That’s all there is to it. The reader doesn’t even really notice that time lapse…it’s as innocuous as using ‘said’ to tag conversation. Our brains just kind of register it and move on.
Right now, looking at my first draft, my characters are doing all kinds of monotonous stuff. I think, for me, it’s the writing equivalent of using ‘uh’ and ‘um’ in conversation. They’re just cleaning up, dressing, sleeping, and eating while I figure out what to do with them next.
But once I’m in second draft mode, their nonsense is all edited out. With 75,000 words, I don’t have time to waste.