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
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.
HAPPY NEW YEAR!