December is my self-declared time to catch up on reading my submissions. I’ve read several manuscripts with a certain peccadillo that resulted in rejection. Since the idea is to offer info that help writers be successful, I thought I’d share.
It’s what I call The Big Huzzah. Sometimes newer writers get so wrapped up in their stories that they see them unfolding in their heads like a movie. This manifests itself in long, drawn out scenes that appear to be vitally important. It isn’t until I read a page or two further that a fully developed scene with full character development is nothing but an inconsequential, throwaway scene.
What am I talking about? Let’s pretend the main character enters into a doctor’s office to find out some test results. There is along scene between the MC and the nurse who takes him back to the doctor’s office. She’s a surly wench who loves nothing more than causing her patients pain. Why poke a vein once to draw blood if she can poke three, four, five times? She takes great pride in scaring small children by bringing in a large, fake hypodermic needle. And she takes great delight in trying to scare the daylights out of the main character. The scene may go on for two or three pages before she finally delivers the MC to the doc’s inner sanctum.
And then she disappears from the story.
Never to be heard from again.
And it doesn’t happen just once, but throughout the entire manuscript.
The point here is that the authors seem to have gotten carried away with their writing and were caught up in the visual movie playing in their heads. The result is that I didn’t know which scenes were important and which were extraneous because they turned every scene into The Big Huzzah.
How do you know the difference?
It might seem like Writing 101 to even ask the question, but I see this Big Huzzah problem often enough, and with talented writers, to warrant the blog space. So how do you know the difference?
The Big Huzzah: a scene where something important is revealed.
Inconsequential scene: literary vehicle that allows a character to get from here to there – entering the doctor’s office, getting out of the car and into The Tequila Zone, muzzling the beagle and allowing the UPS guy to come in, licking an envelope and putting on the stamp. It’s very short and sweet – possibly a small paragraph or two. It’s necessary fluff that writers need in order to keep the story sequential. After all, it would be odd to have your MC in a car, then suddenly talking to his doctor. How did he get there? Hello, Mr. Inconsequential Scene.
So it should seem fairly simple to see where the most literary time and expense should take place, right? Eh, not always. Sometimes that inconsequential scene has the potential to offer some delicious development to take place so that the reader can get a better insight to the main character.
Let’s say we’re at the very beginning of the book and the reader is still getting to know the MC. The MC can either get out of her car and enter the post office, which offers nothing more than getting from Point A to Point B – or she can get out of her car and get into a shouting match with a harpy who’s convinced she stole her parking place. This is a nice opportunity to delve into the MC’s psyche and personality without telling, but showing.
Nothing was learned, per se, in terms of revealing the plot, but the reader has gained valuable insight to the MC in order to be more immersed in that character. This is one of your main goals – if your readers don’t feel like they know your characters, they won’t be engaged in your story.
The idea is to create balance. Obviously, every scene is written with one purpose – to reveal and continue the story, so it’s always a good idea to justify yourself as to why you took an extra few paragraphs to have your MC get into an altercation with a nut job in the parking lot. If you can answer, “because I want the reader to see how plucky and quick-witted she is,” then I’d say you’ve justified that inconsequential scene’s raison e’etre.
Choose your places
But this doesn’t mean that you need to do this with EVERY scene. You need to choose your places where you’re going to expand on your inconsequential scenes. It’s not necessary to make a big deal out of answering the phone, reaching for a pad of paper, writing a very boring phone conversation, then signing off. As we say in the Price manse, “Don’t try to find Plato in a simple margarita.”
The reason you need to strike a clear balance between the Big Huzzah and inconsequential scenes is because you risk confusing your readers. It’s like Debbie Garron back in high school…her life was one big drama. Nothing was ever small or no big deal. EVERYTHING was a big deal, flunking chem or getting a hangnail. It got to the point where no one paid her any attention because she was just being Dramatic Debbie. So when she slammed her hand in her locker door, no one raised an eyebrow at her screams because…well…it was Debbie.
This is NOT how you want your readers to react – and they will if you make every scene, big or little, a long drawn-out whoopie do – a Big Huzzah. They won’t know which scenes are important and should retain for further use, or what’s just a bag of mush.
The Gray Zone
See, there’s a lot of gray area with writing, which means there are few absolutes. You learn certain “rules” in order to become proficient and to know how to break those “rules.” This requires you to know which inconsequential scenes would be great fodder for a wee bit of character development and which inconsequential scenes are just that – inconsequential. Personally, I’d keep them to a minimum because it’s frightfully easy to make your story top heavy. Plus, you’d be amazed how it swells the word count. In the three manuscripts I read this month, the word counts were 112,000, 98,000, and 100,000 – and I’d be willing to say that 30,000 were blown out inconsequential scenes.
You’re going to have to feel your way along with this – as you do with all your writing. But hopefully you’ll be aware of the differences between scenes so we’ll recognize The Big Huzzah for what it is, while letting Inconsequential Scenes play nicely in the background.