Not to go onandonandon about A Game of Thrones (brillianter and brillianter), but of the many many things George R R Martin is good at, one struck me, because it is something that sometimes hangs me up ... like ... a thorn snagging a fairy's hair in flight. It snags me in the writerly briar patch and I have to sniggle my way out with fingernail scissors in order to get going again:
It's knowing what to leave out.
It's knowing what to leave out.
Let's see. A metaphor out of my sack o' writing metaphors. When I was learning to paint, I took a landscape watercolor class. I recall an outing to Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, the whole idyllic scene of painters smattered across a green bowl in the forest with their easels or their pads on their laps, their paint boxes and sun-struck mason jars of water. I chose a pretty vista and got started, but I struggled so much that day and my painting was not a success, and here's why: in landscape painting, the eye has to do some serious editing for the hand. You can't try to put it all in -- it won't translate well from reality to the page, but will be a cluttered jumble, and worse: mundane.
So how, when looking at a forest, do you simplify the shapes you see? How do you choose which trees to leave out, which to highlight, which to blend together into a soft-focus cluster? I can't say that I mastered it with landscape painting (in any case, I just wanted to add lurking beasties to my pictures; plain landscapes are kind of boring), but with writing, I confront the same issue all the time, and George R R Martin is great at it.
The place that this story-editing skill -- leaving stuff out -- is most obvious is in what happens between chapters. Off the page. You end a chapter on an enthralling note. Then: does the next chapter pick up exactly where that one left off? It might; that might be what's called for. Or it might skip through time and pick up later.
You want to dramatize your best stuff, of course. But what about the aftermath of the best stuff, when characters are reacting to them, or what about logistics? Setting something up, getting a character from point A to point B? That can be dull stuff. It's actually amazing what you can let slip into that crack between chapters and the reader's mind will fill it in, so the narrative doesn't get bogged down and can charge forward to the next big thing.
Sometimes it's not just leaving out dull stuff. It's a narrative device to create suspense. It's great when after a chapter break, for the first few paragraphs of the new chapter the reader is off-balance, going: whoa, what happened what happened what happened tell me before I die. And then it comes together through hint and flashback and dialogue, but in the meantime you have this firm fishhook in your reader's lovely lip and they can't get away. (Ouch. Sorry, readers :)
This post might be more helpful if I could give examples, but I'm at my writing cafe wanting to stick up a quick post before getting lost in my story, so I have no examples at hand. This can be a Part I then. Any thoughts and questions welcome before next time!