Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Not Made From Concentrate, But Certainly Much Like It

Yesterday's post received some very interesting comments. One, by Davin Malasarn, struck my notice: "I think a lot of times books are like 'real life concentrate.' They describe events that have been filtered of all the boring stuff."

I must say, I like that description. Usually, when I think of things like that, I think of books being distilled into movies. Last time I saw a movie based on a book I'd read, I realized that in the shortening, the film makers had cut most of the moments where the tension levels were at 2 of 10 or so. The movie moved up to an average plot speed of 6 of 10. They'd deleted the low-key moments. However, it now occurs to me, in large part thanks to Davin's comment (thanks, Davin) that books are, similarly, the distilled version of something much longer: life.

Life is long (at least, it feels that way while it's happening. Hindsight, on the other hand, has a shortening effect), and there are lots of moments in it that are not, well, all that interesting. There are many aspects of life that do not make for fascinating reading.

For example, that average person spends 38.5 days brushing their teeth in a lifetime. Now, if someone wants to compose an epic poem about my teeth cleaning process, power to them, but I, personally, don't find the whole deal that intriguing and would be shocked if anyone else considered it less than mundane. (I apologize to any people very interesting in teeth or teeth-brushing. I meant no disrespect. I just don't care for them.)

While one can say a great deal about the tendency of life to be beautiful and brutal, ugly and elegant, and I know I've said my own share on that thread, but there remains a large portion of life that is indifferent and ordinary and mundane. Not everything that occurs in life is fascinating or worth mention in a book.

So what do we do? We cut it out. We trim those portions and skip over them. We distill life to make the book. It makes sense, doesn't it? After all, your reader probably doesn't need to know that your MC uses cinnamon toothpaste and a red toothbrush (wow, am I on an oral kick at the moment. I wonder what that means...) unless there's some deeper meaning to the story. Maybe she can't stand the taste of mint. Maybe red is his lucky color. Maybe your MC likes to think their Deep Issues over whilst brushing their incisors. But if there's no real reason for such a simple moment, if it just exists to kill time or fill space, I would suggest losing it. It's slowing you down.

I'm not ragging on slow moments, because I do believe that everyone needs a little breathing room, and I do know that if every scene is an 8.75 out of 10, your 9 later will feel like a 4. However, there's something to be said for keeping your action at a 5 or 6. A few 2s and 3s are good for balancing things out, but too many of those and even the best action scene and the strongest moment of tension later might not save the book from feeling too slow.

I strongly recommend thinking carefully about those 2s and 3s. Any time where nothing is happening is a time when your reader doesn't feel like they need to stick around. After all, if nothing is going on, what is there for them to keep caring about?

There are lots of moments when life isn't particularly interesting. Books, on the other hand, should always be interesting. While I would never suggest that the mundane has no place in literature, I would say that it should serve its purpose just like everything else, or it should go. Books should be streamlined to the interesting and the important. Real life, concentrated down to the good parts.

How do you feel about concentrating stories and cutting out the 'average' or 'mundane' portions?


  1. I think a lot of times that's why I read. That or the insights I can glean from amazing characters.

  2. The first person who read my WIP was a teen girl who got to chapter four and said, "Does that girl never shower? No wonder she has friendship issues!"
    Jess didn't have friendship issues but I got the point - no book with a teenage girl as the main character, could be complete without the a mention of hairstraighteners or mascara even if she is not a slave to fashion!
    To not mention the real-life elements seemed all wrong to her.
    Life and literature cannot all be driven in the fast lane.

  3. Dominique,
    I think what you're getting at is that this distillation should result in relevant scenes, as you say. The information about what kind of toothpaste a person uses can indeed be very important, and our job is to either reveal that importance if we choose to include it. Your examples were great!

  4. Great post! I know what you're saying is right, we should all write books that envelop the reader and keep them mesmerized, but I also think that as readers, we need to see that the characters are 'real', they do brush their teeth, take showers, etc. Otherwise they become infallible and therefore, not 'real'.

  5. T.A. -- Thanks for your thoughts.

    Elaine -- True, not everything can be done in the fast lane, but I do believe that even the slow lane should serve a purpose. On the other hand, proving that the MC does have proper hygiene should not be overlooked as a useful purpose, as long as other things occur in that scene as well.

    Davin -- Thanks. Yes, the toothpaste might be very important, and our job should include explaining why it's important. I just know that as a reader, I'd think, 'Okay, we just did five minutes on toothpaste. Is this important?' Hopefully, the answer would be 'yes.'

    Piedmont -- I think you've got a point. Teeth brushing and such things do help show that the characters are real people with read needs, oral and otherwise. Human moments are important to include in a story, though they may seem mundane.

  6. A huge part of my recent rewrites has been getting rid of those mundane scenes. Most of them were transition scenes that I thought were necessary initially. Not so. The reader is smart enough to fill in the blanks. I do have a couple of low impact scenes to advance the plot, but even in those scenes, I've tried to create at least a level 3 tension feel. I've really enjoyed these recent posts. It's making me think about my rewrites. Thanks for sharing.

  7. Susan -- I think having a couple low impact scenes is a smart decision. Those tension level 3s provide a counter balance for your level 8s. I'm glad you're enjoying the posts.