Leaving out the boring bits

[— Karen Myers —]

It’s wintertime, there’s a helluva lot of snow on the ground, and my 4WD car is in the shop.  So, when it comes time for groceries and the liquor store, we have no alternative but to take our big old Ford F150 pickup truck, with its snow plow attached, down off the mountain and go lurching into town.

My husband has a hard time getting around, so I usually go with him to run in and out of the stores. He does the parking and stays in the car.

It’s hard to turn off the writerly brain a lot of the time, and I’m usually yanked from a writing session to “go run errands”, so I’m typically still writing in my head as we hit the road.

So there we were, trying to find parking along the streets of this small, narrow town (since there’s no getting that vehicle into most Main Street parking lots). He began backing into a slot on the street, and I was impatient to hop out and let him finish that while I started the errand in the store. But, no, he didn’t pause to let me do that — he concentrated on the mechanics of the parking and left me fuming in frustration until he stopped and I could get started.

And then it hit me. I wanted him to leave out the boring bits of the scene and go straight to the action. What a pity we can’t do that in real life.

It’s a reminder that we mustn’t let our own concentration on our clever settings and details intrude on the reader’s attention when it doesn’t move the scene along or advance the plot. No one wants to waste time watching a character park the truck (unless, of course, there’s a clue to be had by it, or a motive revealed, or a doubt raised). There needs to be a solid reason for everything you write, if you can manage it, however temptingly self-indulgence beckons to us.

What boring bits have you removed, and why? And what bits have you beefed up properly and made something of? How did you decide, and how did you do it?

18 thoughts on “Leaving out the boring bits

  1. If I’m understanding the definitions right, in one of the fanfic short stories, I left out the entire inciting incident. It was just someone asking the main character to go find something for them. And not an important macguffin either.

    But that story was mostly about the things that happened while they were looking for the thing, rather than the thing itself.

  2. I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t cut the boring bits too deeply – if I note that a chapter starts several weeks later, but don’t reference multiple times that the several weeks happened, then most readers fail to notice the time skip occurred and think that things happened too fast.

    But I’m getting better. I cut a whole lot of time, and physical therapy, in one book. (Physical therapy is the ur-example of boring, repetitive, and painful but necessary in my life.) Rather than skip it entirely, which would feel completely unrealistic, I left in one funny scene (because it does have its hilarious moments. Usually physical comedy brought about by my body betraying my ambitions, but sometimes just the bonding with fellow victi…er…patients.)

    Still, you’re not going to see a lot of waking up and hitting the head, followed by morning ablutions – unless it serves to further the story.

    1. “I’ve learned the hard way that I can’t cut the boring bits too deeply –”

      Agreed. Especially because my back brain often knows better than my front brain what is/is not boring and what is needed to foreshadow something that my front brain doesn’t know is coming (but the back brain does!).

      There’s also the matter of different tastes regarding what is interesting. A boatload of readers think Tolkien should have left out the entire Bombadil interlude. But it’s a favorite part for others (me among them).

  3. “if I note that a chapter starts several weeks later, but don’t reference multiple times that the several weeks happened, then most readers fail to notice the time skip occurred and think that things happened too fast.”

    You could always start the chapter with the line “Several weeks later . . . ” That is allowed.

    1. You’d think so! I did! They missed it!

      I can tell they missed it, because I read the reviews, and I can see where they may have read the line, but the *feeling* part of the brain didn’t accord it the emotional weight of “Oh, they’ve now had several weeks to rub along together”, and proceeded to recoil at “he’s moving too fast!”

      Which was a valuable lesson on the difference between an action-oriented plot arc, which has no consequence to missing weeks, and an emotional plot arc, which wants to see the building familiarity and decries missing weeks near the beginning as lacking critical development.

  4. When I go back and read some of my really early stuff I wonder how I ever persevered because THERE’S SO MUCH BORING in it. Boring battles. Boring lists of what someone did throughout their day. Boring conversations about what to have for dinner. Cut cut cut. I (finally) just finished revising the first arc of a story I initially wrote 8 or 9 years ago. I cut out an entire battle scene because it was repetitive and boringly written. Then I skipped on ahead to the character stuff because that was way more interesting. I rewrote most of the other fights because I had no idea what I was doing but only now am I able to tell. I’m looking at the next arc of this 8-9-year-old story and wondering how I’m going to find the motivation to get it (and the subsequent parts) ready for serialization over the next year or two.

    I think I’ve gotten better at avoiding being too boring. Now when I’m writing I typically go back the following weeks and edit it and it still reads okay, although occasionally I’ll get an idea and I’ll start writing and it will go nowhere but Dullsville, USA, population: my boring imagination. I usually save that stuff for later if I’ve spent a few hours on it, but there were a few pages I wrote last summer I just could not bear looking at ever again.

  5. I think of these temptations as entering the tepid swamp of this-is-nice-omigod-get-out-of-here-immediately-before-you-are-sucked-under. It feels so good once you start, but it’s a trap.

  6. Clothing. Lots and lots of descriptions of clothing in early books. Some customer interactions at Belle, Book, and Blacklight. Moments of character introversion that didn’t move the story along.

    1. I read Wheel of Time in high school and I enjoyed Robert Jordan’s endless descriptions of clothing… until I tried reading it again as an adult and started wondering when the characters were going to start doing things again. I spend very little time on clothing these days. I still like some internal monologue though.

    2. Which were needed in the early books, to establish what “goth” is for people who weren’t aware of it as anything other than “strange people”.

      1. This was in the Cat Among Dragon books. The details about wardrobe were . . . excessive excess. Like pages of it. By that point, the reader should have picked up that if a character makes part of her living transporting exotic textiles, she’s going to have an eye for fabrics and cut. But this was more like reading an exhibit catalogue from the Met Museum.

        1. Oh. My wife likes Cat Among Dragons, but I never got into it. Oh well, no haggis shortage at casa Nelson…. 😎

  7. I’m fond of what Boyd does in his Bob and Nikki books, he has a short paragraph about going to bed and getting up and preparing for the morning, almost no details. Boring stuff but often a bit funny, he has a good number of variations (with 29 books so far) to keep it readable.

    It isn’t much but it really serves well to put me in mind that this is a new day.

  8. Writing boring bits, at least in the first draft, isn’t necessarily bad. It sets the scene solidly in your head. Then in the second draft you can cut it down to the essentials.

  9. Since a lot of my writing is trying to figure out how to get from A to B when X happens, I write out a lot of detail. Then, once I figure it out, I go back and keep just enough to show what the path was. (Don’t always do this, but I should.)

    One example was a series of interviews I needed to do in a fic, to introduce several characters. First interview included all the detail. Then after that, skip to the parts that develop the character or motivation. And one interview I skipped totally, because all I ended up needing was the reaction of OTHER characters to the interview result.

    Another trick I learned from my daughter: for phone conversations, first write out the entire conversations on both sides. Then cut out the other side if that’s the only part you need. And whatever else isn’t necessary.

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