The gap in your narrative, the scene you’re avoiding – stop and brainstorm!

Hole in your narrativeI was editing a manuscript recently and came across a number of scenes that were summarised instead of shown in detail. In some cases this was a good call, but others made me wonder.

Why? Because they looked like they had the potential to be significant.

I’m not going to tell you the true details, of course, so this is a paraphrase. Broadly speaking, the characters have formed a new business venture. If it succeeds, it gives the narrator a new start in life. Also there’s a romance that will be threatened, because the girlfriend wants to settle somewhere else. The business makes this more tricky. Yet the writer summarised this period of preparation and change.

It’s fair enough to fast forward if there was nothing interesting to show. But during those hours, the characters are playing unfamiliar roles, and getting closer to their hopes and dreams. Relationships will change because of the responsibilities. Tensions will be growing. I said to my client: are you sure there is nothing interesting in these scenes? Do you really want to leave them out? To me, they’re gaps in the narrative.

Mea culpa
I’ve often been guilty of this myself. I’ll be working through my outline and I’ll find a section where I’ve glossed over a set of events, not imagining they might hold important developments. I hadn’t given them a moment’s thought, but as I write, I detect this is leaving an unacceptable hole, disconnecting the reader from the characters’ arcs.

However, I don’t know what to write in these scenes. I certainly don’t know what might make the scene interesting. So what do I do? Apply backside to seat, start the fingers and let the characters guide me.

Some of my most satisfying scenes were born this way. It might be a good campfire moment, a small-hours conversation that turns surprisingly confidential. It might be a time to have an argument, confess some back story or blurt out something unwise because a character is ratty and tired. There might be a switch in a character’s attitude, a hardening of resolve, a feeling that this venture is committing my people to a disastrous path.

I start by writing any old nonsense and look for the point where the significance begins to grow. I might cut 90% of it later, but some part of this new material is usually valuable. And if I’d let myself summarise, I’d never have found it.

Gaps in research
Another reason I might dodge writing a scene like this is because, well, I didn’t do the homework. I have no idea what the practicalities of the situation would be. You’ll probably agree that’s a lame reason to leave a scene out, and might shortchange the reader. Writer, get thyself to Wikipedia.

Not all summary is bad!
Summary can be good, of course. You have to condense sometimes. But if you’re summarising scenes only because you find it too difficult to jump into them, or you hadn’t thought what they might contain, or you don’t have the knowledge to write them, don’t assume the story doesn’t need them. Get in and start exploring. You might be surprised.
Thanks for the pic Alistair Sutton

Have you surprised yourself with a scene you summarised and then wrote out at greater length? Let’s share examples! (I’d share some from my own work but, having a direly inefficient memory, I can’t remember what they are. So it’s over to you.)

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  1. #1 by Elaine Jeremiah on September 21, 2014 - 6:21 pm

    I also can’t think of an example of an extended scene, but thank you for a really helpful post. It’s got me thinking that I may need to flesh out some of my scenes and just see where my imagination takes me. 🙂

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 21, 2014 - 10:00 pm

      Thanks, Elaine. I’ve often been surprised by how much I found to say when I sat down and brainstormed. Have fun!

  2. #3 by authorleannedyck on September 21, 2014 - 8:08 pm

    I’ve done this as well. But then later realize that that scene would be the right moment to give my readers that clue or piece of information. I think I’m so excited to see how the story will end that I race to it. But I’m learning to relax and let the story build.

    • #4 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 21, 2014 - 10:02 pm

      Thanks Leanne. It’s interesting that you use the term ‘rushing’. My author came back to me with this remark: ‘darn, you’ve spotted where I was rushing to get to the end!’ Certainly I’m guilty of that too, with the more important scenes jostling for my attention. Also I’m keen to write them before I forget them. But at some point I remember I need to make sure the emotional continuum is intact – and that’s when I recognise I need to write more.

  3. #5 by Carolyn Mahony Author on September 22, 2014 - 6:43 am

    I’ve heard what you describe, called “riff writing”! And I quite often do it when I’m in a Writer’s Block moment and can’t write a scene or see where it’s going. I just sit down and write whatever comes into my head (on a separate piece of paper/document). It’s exactly as you say – most of it I discard but there are nearly always enough little gems in there to set me on my way again a very happy bunny! I love it!

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 22, 2014 - 6:56 am

      Riff writing? Ah, yes I’ve heard that term too. Lovely it is. It’s interesting that you say you open another document. I sometimes start one of these in my outtakes file, thus acknowledging that it can be especially rough. It soon gets moved to the main draft. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. #7 by Tracy on September 22, 2014 - 12:56 pm

    Convenient nudge, thank you.

    I have a scene I didn’t actually summarize, but I most certainly short-changed it and left it with stunted development because I was dying to write the NEXT scene after it. I’ve been reminding myself for nearly three hundred pages that I need to go back and flesh out the short-changed scene.

    I’m dragging my feet on it because it involves…well, without massive backstory explanations, it requires me to write about what could be described as the first time an alien race meets humans. Hardly insignificant, but not one of my favourite themes at all (I find first contact scenes are too cliched these days).

    But I will try vomiting on the page to see what turns up.



    • #8 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on September 22, 2014 - 1:23 pm

      Hi Tracy! In outlining your objections here, you’ve actually set yourself up with a great mission statement. You know how you don’t want the scene to go. Have fun, and come back to tell us if you emerged victorious.

  5. #9 by Tay on August 18, 2015 - 8:56 pm

    I landed here while googling (including your name in the search because I love your Nail Your Novel series) for ideas on how to fix some of the issues I’m dealing with.

    This is what I often find to be the cause of my “writer’s block.” I have less of a problem with spotting the gaps than the part about fleshing out said gaps. I reckon it’s my biggest obstacle when it comes to finishing my first draft. For me, writing comes easiest when a scene is vivid in my head, or in other words, I know and can see how the scene is going to happen. However, there are times when I know this or that should happen, but I can’t seem to play it out and then I get very stuck.

    Sometimes, it’s due to lack of research as you’ve mentioned. Other times, it happens in even very basic or mundane scenes. For example, if I were writing a romance story, I might want a scene where my characters go on a date. But then I’d draw a huge blank on what the date would consist of, where they would go, what they would do – and everything I brainstormed or came up with would be incredibly generic or just plain boring.

    These are the moments where I feel like I’m the most uncreative person in the world. I have yet to find a good way to tackle this. I’ve been stuck on my current draft for almost a month now because I’m unable to flesh out a scene and I don’t feel comfortable skipping forward because what happens in this scene would affect the next. It’s very frustrating!

    • #10 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on August 18, 2015 - 11:10 pm

      Hello Tea! All I can say is … I know what you mean! And you sum it up very well with that phrase ‘I feel like the most uncreative person in the world’. Sometimes you just have to start writing, make some bad moves, and play until you find a good one. Thanks for your comment and I’m so chuffed you like my books.

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