You’ll read writing advice that says to ignore your internal editor while you write.
Well, a lot of writing advice says a lot of things. I’ve read so much of it, I should be an expert. But when my fingers hit keyboard, where does that knowledge go?
I may be confident about my language skills. Nix the passive sentence. Grammar rules. The beauty of a well-turned phrase. But the underlying mechanics of fiction? I’m still working that out.
Case in point: I read through the climax of my Writers of the Future contest story yesterday and thought why the heck are so many of my characters traveling from one place to another? Snooze!
I’ve heard the advice to cut the travel sequence, especially when nothing else happens while the character travels. Walking from place to place. Driving. It doesn’t matter the mode. Those sequences are just as boring as you knew they would be.
So why did I write them?
A couple of reasons. But one is that, in the heat of the moment I confused one piece of advice with another: the show, don’t tell rule. My internal editor warned me I can’t just tell my reader that the character went from one place to the next. I have to show it. Stupid editor.
The result of this confusion? A laundry list of trivialities in the midst of my story’s action.
So I set my laptop aside and dug into some of my favorite stories. I flipped George RR Martin’s A Clash of Kings in the Game of Thrones series to a random chapter. Just to see how Martin handles the mid-scene change of location.
Turns out I way overthought it. Martin’s solution was simple.
In one sentence, his character Tyrion is in his bedroom. You know this because he sets something on his bedside table.
In the next sentence, Tyrion is in the yard. Martin doesn’t say Tyrion walked out to the yard. He doesn’t show Tyrion walk out to the yard. He just says that another character “caught up with him as he was crossing the yard.” (This is on page 772 of the mass market paperback if you want to see the actual passage.)
And Martin doesn’t confuse the reader, because he offers that quick, reorienting statement that tells us where Tyrion is. You’d never notice it if you weren’t looking.
I felt pretty dumb for missing this until I found out that, before the French New Wave movement hit the movie scene, directors did follow their character’s every move from one location to the next. And for the same reason I felt like I had to: they didn’t want to confuse or disorient their audience with a sudden jump of location.
French New Wave showed us that audiences are smarter than that. And readers are too.
The adorably stuffy video below gives a few quick details on just how French New Wave changed cinema’s boring travel sequences and formulaic movie shots (jump to 1:36 to get what you want).
And, if you look closely at movies you watch from now on, you’ll notice that those jump cuts that French New Wave introduced are now in everything from blockbuster movies to YouTuber videos.
I’m grateful to know I can shitcan those dull sequences. It’s going to cut a whole lotta words from my bloated word count. (The contest has a 17k word limit. I’m on word 29k. Ouch!)
If you had a good handle on this concept already, that’s awesome. But don’t feel bad if, when you’re in the thick of writing, you forget the concepts you thought you already knew.
It’s easy to mix up common writing advice while you try to apply it.
And a quick look at how a successful author solved the problem you’re grappling with may turn a huge temple-tapping question into a no-duh moment instead. You may feel silly, but you’ll also have solved the problem. Even when the rest of the advice conflicts.
So what did you learn while writing this week? Tell me in the comments.
This is so good. It seems that you don’t have so much conflicting advice as you think. You show that the character has traveled and our beautiful pattern-matching brains will fill in the details of the trip if we need them. As many hours as I have spent looking at a windshield, I cannot imagine that I need those details.
Hear hear, Bill. Thanks for weighing in!