When you are writing I gather you plan your plot out first, rather than writing ‘by discovery.’ But if so, don’t you find that certain scenes and events leap into your mind with crystal clarity but then linking them together becomes frustratingly difficult? How do people get from one situation to another? You know where the characters will be, what they might do, but they don’t. So how do they get there? … discovering more and more pieces of a story as you go – but not in the right order. How do you link them?!
This question came through to me today, with the preface of ‘I expect this sounds like a stupid question.’ It’s totally not. It’s actually a fairly fundamental challenge to story construction. Just because I plan plots and write story outlines (which, by the way, is a relatively new development) does not mean that I know where everything’s going to go. Far from it. Chapters, paragraphs and conversations change places all the time. But that doesn’t really answer the question.
Yes, certain scenes and events leap to my mind on a regular basis and, when they do, I write them. I’ve found that, past advice to myself notwithstanding, I just can’t stick to writing linearly – I get bored, so the writing loses spark. But more than that, those scenes often don’t let me think about anything else. Further down the line the scene will likely change emphasis, or place in the story, or whatever but that’s fine. The first incarnation was written in the white heat of creativity which is what gives it the necessary spark of life. But how do you get your characters from one situation to another? Mainly the answer is ‘practice’, which is not particularly helpful. There are two tips I can give which might help.
The first is the most important: transition writing, where you move a character from scene to scene, must NOT feel like filler. It can’t be boring, or rushed, or sketchy. If it is – and if the author is writing it because they have to, rather than because they’re interested – then the reader will get bored too. It doesn’t take much to bore a reader. All they have to do is blink to take themselves out of the reading immersion, and their time is constantly being demanded by outside forces, so you have to earn every moment of attention. If you’re bored or boring for a scene or even a sentence, you lose them. If there’s filler, then stop and rethink. How can you turn it into something that moves the story forwards? I don’t necessarily agree with the advice that says every single scene should progress the plot but it should develop the story somehow, be that action or character relationships or world building. If the characters need to have a conversation about an important clue, have them talk whilst they walk from A to B – maybe one is explaining to the other why the clue dictates they have to go to B at all. If the hero is leaving home to seek adventure, he can notice the changes in the countryside as he comes to new places or react to seeing a highway robbery, which reveals to the audience what kind of person he is. And maybe gives him incentive to crack down on highway robberies, or meets the victim who will become important, or maybe even realise that he doesn’t have a clue about fighting and should probably learn. Doesn’t matter – make it interesting in some respect, and let the audience learn something through it. Stop it being filler.
If there is absolutely nothing to put in other than filler – if your imagination has gone on holiday, having turned off the hot water and left a note for the milkman – then end the chapter. There’s no rule to say how long or short a chapter can be. Spiritus‘ chapters vary from 16 words to 16 pages, at least in part because of this. You can use scene breaks to build tension, switch to a different perspective or, yes, jump the boring bits. Readers don’t need to see every single little detail of the story. They don’t care that Jimmy had toast for breakfast, unless the marmalade was poisoned, or that Cheryl did the washing up before she went out to slay the dragon. So, if you don’t know how the characters got from A to B in an interesting way, don’t tell. The audience can fill in the blanks for themselves. Again, this comes back to practice as a writer. You’ll start to know more instinctively when to break, and when to turn it into another facet of story.
Finally, read John Buchan’s John Macnab for an excellent example of how what might be considered filler is used to build up character personalities and motivations throughout the book, as well as driving tension. Then try Hal Duncan’s Vellum. It’s one long string of scene snippets, out of order (and sometimes even out of genre), and yet it tells a very clever story. I have no idea how Duncan did it – possibly index cards in some kind of complicated jigsaw – but it’s a perfect example of how links can be utterly irrelevant.