The Too-short Shortcut

For a change of pace, I thought I’d write about writing on my writing blog.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the writing problems that I often see.

There’s the exposition/infodump issue. This is actually the anti-shortcut issue. Typically, this is worldbuilding information, oftentimes completely irrelevant to the scene. In this case, either cut it completely, or somehow tie to the characters and the scene.

When the information is necessary, I oftentimes see it completely removed from the POV character. How is the POV character reacting to the environment. If you dropped a homeless child from a city in the middle of Hollywood mansions, what would the child notice? The windows aren’t broken. There’s lots of grass, and it’s green and well-maintained. The houses are ginormous. The houses are devoid of graffiti. The child will probably suspect there’s lots of hot food inside.

Needless to say, there’s plenty of opportunity here to describe the surroundings through the eyes of the homeless child. The reader will never notice the infodump if you can tie the POV’s feelings about his surroundings into it. In fact, you can make the infodump work as characterization, too.

Another problem I often see is not providing enough detail. I see a major plot point happen, but few, if any details are provided. The problem is the writer needs the event to occur but is uncomfortable with the event itself.

Let’s take a specific example. This example is hypothetical but emblematic of what I’ve seen. Let’s assume we’re reading a thriller and at one point the badguy must eliminate the person who holds a vital piece of information.

John Badguy entered the church office, pulled his revolver, and fired twice, murdering Father Innocent. He departed the church cloaked by the shadow of the night.

Okay, we have the event but no details. A major plot milestone just happened, but it was shortcutted.

I can’t quite picture it in my head. Now, the trick here is to provide enough details without getting gory–this is a thriller, not a zombie-cannibal-eating horror story. The reader needs enough, so when John Badguy meets his fate, they’re rooting against him and for the hero.

In the above, you can say that “murdering” is enough to do that. Logically, I agree, but emotionally, it’s tell–we need show.

So, I’ll rewrite it.

At the church’s side door, John Badguy knelt, the cold of the sidewalk seeped through his jeans into his knee. In the dark, his left hand kept constant clockwise force on the thin, flat tool inserted in the door’s lock as his right worked the j-shaped tool against the lock’s pins. The last pin slide upward and the knob twisted freely. He replaced his tools into their pouch and stuck it in his back pocket. He donned garish yellow rubber gloved that he’d used in his past life as a dishwasher and stood, his knee cracking as he did so. 

He entered, quietly closing the door behind himself. He stepped quickly and cautiously, not making a sound, through the darkened hallways of the church’s administrative wing.The faint odor of incense lingered from mass earlier in the evening.

At the priest’s office, Father Innocent sat with his back to him, praying. John pulled a revolver from his waistband and fired twice. Father Innocent slumped forward and fell to the floor with thud. John rushed to the body and felt the priest’s neck. No pulse. 

John shoved the revolver back into his waistband and purposely walked to the door he’d entered only a minute earlier. Once outside, he disappeared into the night. At last, his mind was calm. The link between him and the robbery of the century died with Father Innocent.

The rewrite may not be the best piece of writing, but it’s far more satisfying. It answers the logic questions as to how John got into the church and how does John know the priest is dead. It places the reader in the scene far more than the original. Most importantly, it provides enough detail to picture the murder. And lastly, we get a sense of John’s emotion and mindset. He’s relieved, not feeling guilty.

Notice, I didn’t include any gore to get the point across. There’s no description of blood and guts. In a different sort of story, this may be required, but it wasn’t necessary for this one.

The same goes for other acts of violence and even sex. A sex scene in a romance novel is written far differently (i.e., in far more detail) than in other genres. Yet, in any genre, it should be necessary to the plot, and the character’s motivations and feelings need to be fully examined. Otherwise, the sex looks gratuitous. The same goes for violence.

A rule of thumb I use is to judge how important the event is to the characters and plot. The more important, the more details or depth. There are several ways to get that depth, and that doesn’t mean we need gore. We need a strong tie to the characters, their thoughts and feelings. Remember, describing the gore is easy but can turn off the reader.

Without this depth, the scene will feel rushed, which isn’t satisfying. When the badguy gets his comeuppance, there’s every chance that it won’t feel satisfying to the reader. If the comeuppance is particularly nasty (let’s say John Badguy gets crushed slowly in a garbage compactor), you don’t want the reader sympathizing with him. You want the reader saying, “Yeah, you got what you deserved.”

Beware of shortcutting events, especially major plot events. Don’t be afraid to write and rewrite the scene. Put in every detail you can think of. It’s far easier to cut what’s on the page in editing than it is to start adding after the fact.

At least it is for me. Your mileage may vary.

I’m interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.

About George

I'm interested in many things, from Mars to space travel, music to books, movies to creating my own stories. My sci-fi novel, The Music of Mars, is available now.
This entry was posted in detail, rewriting, sensitive subject, taboo subject, writing. Bookmark the permalink.

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