Crisp, Fast, Focused

If you compare the genre fiction of today with books written, say, in 1972, you’ll see a leaner, quicker product in the modern novel. That change doesn’t necessarily generate a better, more satisfying reading experience. It’s simply different. Twenty-first century readers assimilate information in short, fast bursts from multiple sources. They don’t want a long setup or lengthy description or a lot of background.

While some people still settle into a comfy chair for an evening of reading with soft music in the background and a beverage at their elbow, many are reading on their SmartPhones while waiting in the fast food line, or commuting, or in the dentist’s reception room. Distractions abound, and the savvy writer must adapt to the needs of readers who are frequently interrupted.

I wince as I suggest this, but let’s superficially compare a John D. MacDonald novel to a James (ouch) Patterson story. Both authors deal with crime/suspense. Both have been hugely successful. Both created a popular, long-running series built around an appealing protagonist. Both, in turn, have been considered tight, fast reads.

Now for the differences:

1) MacDonald’s books have long, well-developed chapters.

2) Patterson’s chapters are incredibly short . . . two or three pages.

3) MacDonald takes his time in introducing characters vividly and capably, usually in action designed to showcase their personalities.

4) Patterson slaps a name on his characters and launches into the
plot action.

5) MacDonald writes intense physical action, using sentence fragments.

6) Patterson writes physical action in narrative summary or scene fragments, hitting the gist of the encounter and cutting away to the next chapter.

So if you want to write today’s lean scene, consider the following:

1) Know exactly what your scene is about.
2) Does the setting have any bearing on the scene’s outcome? If not, take description down to the bare essential of one dominant impression, mentioned briefly.
3) Strip away all the extraneous characters. Center the scene on the protagonist and antagonist.
4) What does the protagonist want, right now, in this instant of story time?
5) How does the protagonist intend to achieve that desire or objective?
6) Does the antagonist want to stop the protagonist from accomplishing that objective? (The answer should be yes.)
7) What is the antagonist’s plan to thwart the protagonist?
8) What motivates the protagonist?
9) What motivates the antagonist?
10) How can the scene end in disaster for the protagonist?

Does your scene hit all ten of those marks? Take a scene you’ve already written and work through the checklist. Do you have four characters standing around? Chances are that two of the extra people have commented or interrupted the main argument. Remove them!

Have you spent three paragraphs explaining motivation and background? Well, now you know the motivations so you can let Greg Goode and Bill Baddun yell at each other from those points of reference. There’s no need to explain it all to the reader. Readers can put two and two together just fine.

Is the scene goal clear? Most writers who aren’t sure write a lot of unnecessary words in hopes of figuring something out. That’s great for rough draft, but not so interesting for what readers will be seeing. Remember the old adage: if you don’t know where you’re going, you can’t get there.

If your scene hits all the marks but is still longer than, say, six or seven manuscript pages, look for any circular argument or repetitious conflict. What section of the disagreement is the most potent or important? Keep that, and trim the rest. Read it over to see if it makes sense when it’s shortened. If it doesn’t, what single comment will best fill the gap?

Writing lean takes extra time, extra care, and a lot of focus. You can’t afford to ramble.



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17 responses to “Crisp, Fast, Focused

  1. Very good entry. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Deb

    I’m glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for stopping by.


  3. I was just wondering whether my WIP whose first nine chapters all seem to have only two characters in each scene was somehow stunted as a result of my efforts to pare down to the essentials, when I bumped into this.

    Nice food for thought.

    Now, I will go back to my concern about the intensity and pacing of my conflict ….

    About the alligator: is all the conflict really about person v person? The broken elevator or building fire I’ve seen in some books to spur characters into different directions are no less effective for their impersonal-ness, provided they spur the character to real internal trouble. Is the current view that protagonist-vs-environment is dead? Is the self-vs-self thought to be too weak to carry readers onward? As I’m writing my idea I keep discovering pacing issues and things that drive me to invent side-trips from an ongoing conflict … alligators, I suppose … what other than live readers can I use to assess whether my conflict is capable of keeping readers?

  4. Deb

    Generally, the most effective conflict occurs between two sentient characters. That means anyone capable of independent thinking and goal formation. So conflict can be between two people, or between a human and an animal, or aliens, or an artifically intelligent computer.

    If your first nine chapters feature only the same two characters in opposition, then you may indeed be too narrow in focus. Is your protagonist in conflict with more than one character? You deal one-on-one in each scene, but a larger number of oppositional characters can widen the scope of your story and help you form subplots.

    The protagonist versus environment issue is a thorny one. Most of the confusion surrounding it stems from misunderstanding of the underlying story principles. Protagonist versus environment is NOT conflict. It’s adversity. Mother Nature isn’t after your character specifically. She’s shaking that earthquake regardless of who gets hurt. That doesn’t mean the event can’t be exciting and action-packed. But it has to be written in narrative summary, and if that’s all there is then it will not sustain long fiction well.

    Jack London’s short stories and novels come immediately to mind. I can’t think of any author who wrote the protagonist versus environment setup better. Still, if it was only man vs. the elements, as in “To Build a Fire,” he used the short story length. In the novel WHITE FANG, for example, the dog protagonist was up against men, wild animals, and the setting. That mix of conflict and adversity was exciting, and to early 20th century readers the locale seemed exotic and fascinating.

    Compare London’s work with the classic young adult novel HATCHET by Gary Paulsen. It’s won awards, and children love it. It hits that universal childhood fantasy of surviving lost and alone in the woods. However, from a technical standpoint, the boy-against-the-environment premise loses momentum by the second act. Thereafter, it’s just a string of random events and mishaps that the boy must endure. Paulsen is, in effect, depending entirely on alligators, and overuse of any single technique becomes first predictable, then boring.

    My recommendation is usually to whip up an environmental problem, such as a brewing hurricane, and then put the characters in conflict with each other about how to deal with it. That way, you have the excitement of the storm with all its imminent violence, yet you haven’t lost the forward push that actual conflict between characters generates.

    Regarding internal conflict, where a character is torn inside … that can help bond readers to the character and make her sympathetic. However, the internal angst belongs in a structured dramatic unit that I call the sequel. Sequels fall between scenes. The internalization is necessary for injecting motivation and emotion into the story, but long, involved internalization doesn’t belong in scene action, when external conflict is in play.

    It can be beneficial to think about your plot in terms of these separate units: e.g. scene (conflict between two characters, trouble grows) + sequel (protagonist reacts to what just happened and forms new goal) + scene (protagonist acts on new goal and hits opposition from the antagonist, intensifying conflict) + sequel (protagonist reacts, agonizes, and decides what to try next) + scene … etc.

    The best way to self-assess your work is to understand story structure and the principles that are its foundation. When you understand them and how/why they work, you can trust them to carry your plot along the way you intend.

    I hope this is helpful,

    • Deb,
      Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I was thinking about both To Build a Fire and White Fang when I posted — and realized White Fang’s excitement came from the living characters rather than the hostile backdrop. I haven’t read To Build a Fire in a while, but it really struck me as being mostly man vs environment. But – as you point out – not novel-length!

      First, the good news: in these 2-character chapters … it’s not the same two characters πŸ™‚ The POV character loses his home, whereupon he is promptly attacked; escaping, he contracts to do something that shortly thereafter appears impossible; while on an errand to prevent one disaster, he is immediately antagonized by someone else before heading back with a partial solution … only to have his contract problem collapse under another disaster.

      Describing my first chapters like this makes it sound more zippy than it feels after editing it up close for a while. My concern is that the POV’s contract problems – the problem that overhangs the first third of the book – aren’t inherently loaded with person-vs-person conflict, but pit the character against his own limits, physical laws, etc. Of course, his solution results in a dysfunctional relationship with his ally. But I worry that the time spent in adversity that isn’t person-vs-person conflict may threaten things like pacing.

      I have made some effort to make sense of my writing as a sequence of scenes and sequels, but I haven’t internalized this process so as to execute it during the drafting phase, and in editing I struggle to distinguish scene from scene as it occurs. For example, a character without a lot of experience reflects on what he *does* know in forming responses in the midst of scene conflict; the reaction and analysis has some of the feel of sequel, though it’s in the middle of scene action. Are there some exercises you give students to help them sort out scene and sequel?

      I will try to think of some of the non-interpersonal adversity along the lines of sequel, and see if using it as scene glue has a favorable effect.

      Many thanks. May you have a wonderful 2013.

      PS: Love the tree!

  5. Deb

    One of the exercises I use most is to pick up a book that’s strongly plotted, something by Dick Francis or Jim Butcher or J. K. Rowling. Select a chapter that’s dealing with characters in conflict with each other. Find and underline the scene goal belonging to the protagonist. Check off the back-and-forth progression between protagonist and antagonist. Find and underline where the protagonist’s scene goal is finally thwarted.

    Those underline marks indicate the beginning and ending of the scene. You may find–halfway through the scene–a sentence or two of internalization. This usually occurs in response to some whammy of a maneuver pulled by the antagonist. It doesn’t constitute the ending of the scene unless it smashes the scene goal.

    Once you can locate a scene ending, then examine what immediately follows it. Chances are it’s internalization dealing with the emotions and reactive thoughts of the protagonist. Find and underline the responsive emotions. Track through the character’s analysis of his problem. It may be only a sentence or it may last several paragraphs. Find and underline the choice of new action and the decision to act. That’s the end of the sequel.

    Some authors write clearly delineated scenes and sequels. Others are sloppy with the structure and let one bleed into the next. Once your eye has some practice in seeing the structural elements, you’ll figure out why some scenes fall flat. If they fail to end with a resolution dealing with achieving or losing the goal, they’re going to disappoint.

    Glad you like the tree!

  6. Thanks. I’ll have a look at some specimens like that, and at some of my own chapters. One thing that has me upbeat is the favorable feedback I’ve gotten; whatever faults I’ve not yet expunged from my writing are not sufficient to keep people from asking for more chapters πŸ™‚

    Thanks again!

  7. Deb

    There’s nothing like encouragement from the people reading your manuscript draft. It keeps you typing!

  8. Paring back to the things that make the scene move forward (while leaving in what’s needed later; those things might not move the scene much, but if one doesn’t build a foundation where will the house stand?) has been work, but I like the result.

    Not to draw you into dangerous territory, but what’s the story behind “James (ouch) Patterson”?

    I’ll tell mine if you tell yours πŸ™‚

    • Oh, I have nothing personal against Mr. Patterson. I don’t consider him a good craftsman, but he obviously possesses a very astute understanding of what draws (and holds) reader attention. I’m old-fashioned and idealistic enough to think that a story should hold reader attention because it’s a rousing good yarn. I can’t admire tricks such as short chapters designed to fit within the modern reader’s attention span, or space breaks designed to work around a reader’s blink line. Yet the numbers are there. Whatever Patterson does works. He’s taken his skills as a former advertising copy writer and applied them to the world of fiction, and he’s done it very successfully.

      The rest is just sour grapes and major envy on my part!
      πŸ™‚ Deb

      • I enjoyed a few Patterson novels, but I don’t recall the title of the two that finally put me off. I think it was the back-to-back disappointment that did it. First, the villain went from an unseen criminal mastermind to a disaffected grocery clerk teen who couldn’t possibly have had the one-step-ahead resources demonstrated by the villain the whole book, and of course once identified and cornered he was a snap to put down. The end just erased the plausibility that had been generated in the earlier story, and with it a lot of my ability to trust the internal consistency of the stories. I felt like it’d have been better to make the villain the victim of a book-ending traffic accident. Then, in the next book I read, Alex Cross neared the villain at the approach to the finale and drew his service pistol. Okay, a cop has a service pistol. No problem. Patterson dropped that it was a Glock. Good, Glocks are common and reliable tactical handguns with a reputation for durability. Maybe it says something about Cross that he has a dull-looking but reliable Glock instead of a flashy number with a nickeled barrel. So, fine. I’m still with him. Then Cross thumbs the safety.

        No Glock has an external safety to thumb. I roll my eyes. But no matter. Right? He’s just unaware of the character’s tools, writing about the exciting parts.

        By now, he’s called the service weapon a pistol and a Glock (every one of which is an automatic), but with an apparently compulsive need to switch up vocabulary in the middle of his fast-moving scene he says something about what Cross does with his revolver.

        Where on Earth did he get a revolver? Glock never made a revolver. Then it hits me. It’s not his holdout gun he just drew, Patterson has no idea an automatic and a revolver are mutually exclusive (though a comic-book joke; you see them drawn occasionally by artists trying to plus up the sex of a gun rather than its plausibility). Or maybe he has no never seen a Glock and has no idea every one is an automatic. It took me some minutes and some re-reading to realize I hadn’t lost track of another weapon’s introduction to the scene.

        Then it hit me. The author just didn’t care whether his story made any sense. Its only purpose was to create excitement. Not depth.

        I learned something really important, reflecting on this: people whose complaints about a story turn on the technical details of the tools have concerns that will probably be overlooked by the vast millions of readers if they have any reason to pick up the book – and people who develop care about a character or the character’s problems will follow the author nearly anywhere and tolerate nearly anything to see it resolved.

        So: make characters people can care about, and problems they will want to see solved. Do that, and failure elsewhere could escape notice even if serious. This was a big problem for me to get, because my strength was technical consistency and world-building, not characters and the mystery behind their problems. I’ve been working on this.

        And I largely have Patterson to thank for helping me get it. πŸ™‚

  9. You know, you’re absolutely right! This issue has always been hard for me to accept. I do get hung up on small details, and I want them to be right. But if the book is designed to be a page turner, and it moves at that kind of rapid clip, and it’s easy to read, and it has a character like Alex Cross that people seem to like and care about, then readers just want to enjoy following the protagonist through several danger points.


  10. … the downside is that an interesting concept and a world that works isn’t enough. I need to dream up ways to present characters so people care.

    That’s actually one of the most useful pieces of negative feedback I ever got from a Cyberpunk WIP. The protagonist was a hard, focused chick inspired by the likes of Aliens’ Vasquez and Gibson’s Molly Millions; she was cool and in-charge of things. The feedback: “why should I care?” A light dawned. No detail feels cool until the reader gives a damn about the problem, or the character, or both. Until then, it’s just fluff obscuring the reader’s search for meaning (of the work). Veneer. So the reader had better see a compelling problem, or become fascinated with a character, or both – and pretty fast.

    Your mentor had it right, I think: you can’t get the details wrong or you lose trust. Those who don’t bother may sell lots of books, but not to anyone who can’t enjoy the picture because of distraction by the man behind the curtain. You can be forgiven lots of little things that don’t matter because readers will understand – but there’s a limit. Act like you don’t care about your yarn, and you risk teaching others not to care, either.

    With this in mind, I found something interesting over at Goodreads.
    38.1% – nearly two in five readers – will reportedly ALWAYS FINISH A BOOK NO MATTER WHAT. That’s a lot of time to pull a story out of a funk. It also explains some really anesthetic bestsellers. But think about it: if you can show someone a reason to care early, lots of folks will stick with you long enough to find out if you can pull off an ending worth fighting for.

    (But remember the denominator here. Maybe by surveying only Goodreads account-holders, this number is grossly overestimated compared to the general population. This does nothing to aid a work’s journey to publication – just its potential to get finished by those who pick it up.)

    • Up until recently I would finish a book no matter what. Now, if it’s not working for me, I don’t bother to continue. The danger in abandoning a story partway through is that you may lose some wonderful nugget waiting ahead. As a child reader that jumped into grownup fiction very early, I discovered the need to keep going with a difficult or confusing book, and by the end I would have grown as a reader and an individual. I learned so much by sticking with those novels.

      However, at this stage I’m abandoning books because a) I dislike the protagonist or b) the story objective is boring or c) the writer lacks enough skill to keep me intrigued.

      These are flaws in technique that shouldn’t be getting past editors. Still, you make the valid point that if readers LIKE the protagonist they will follow despite all sorts of writer missteps. It all comes down to making an emotional connection between writer, character, and reader. Without that, you’ve got nothing.

      It doesn’t, of course, mean that you can jettison good craftsmanship just as the fact that I can’t see the wiring in my house’s walls doesn’t excuse the builder’s electrician from having strung it. (What a horridly constructed sentence! Pardon me. I’m too tired to revise it into something more coherent.)

      πŸ™‚ Deb

      • Oh, I’ll drop a book. And sloppy attention to details that affect credibility and verisimilitude are to me proof positive the author isn’t prepared to keep the ship together in tight maneuver. I used to assume the book was published for a reason and stick with it, but I’ve learned with age and experience. Now, I bail before the crash.

        I want to do the details right – I think that’s actually one of my strengths – but I’ve learned how critical it is to give people a reason to care. (I didn’t mean to suggest there was virtue in sloppiness!)

  11. No, I don’t think you gave the impression that you were supporting sloppiness. Because I deal with students who MAJOR in sloppiness, I tend to jump on that point quite a bit.

    But what you’ve learned–to make readers care–is one of the most valuable lessons out there.


    • To say I’ve learned it may be a bit much, but at least I’ve learned its utility.

      Executing a plan based on that knowledge is the major purpose of my WIP, and It’ll be a while ’till I have a handle on how that’s going. Feedback is good so far on this point, though, so I hold out hope that diagnosis is most of the cure.

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