Thursday, April 14, 2011

The Forest for the Trees

Calvin deRuyter

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.

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!


Jon said...

Awesome stuff, Laini. I'm in the middle of purging a lot of the boring details in a book right now.

Veronika Walker said...

Laini, this has always been one of the areas that I love about writing and seek to implement into my own writing as well. I haven't mastered it yet, of course, but I think if you can do it right, it is almost an art form of itself. :)

Great post!

tone almhjell said...

Excellent point!

I just finished translating a chapter dealing with aftermath. Now I'm really tempted to tear it apart: jump in at a scene that will work nicely as a setting for patching things up, slip in the whys and wherefores along the way. Maybe I'll give it a whirl tomorrow ;)

Then again, I did just pull the "what just happened thing". must see what works best.

Catherine Denton said...

You're right! I tend to fill in too many gaps and not let the reader figure it out. What's funny is I HATE when a book does that to me. Wonderful post. Keep it coming.

My only question is: How do you choose what stays? How? How? HOW?
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nicolekrell said...

Well said! I always tell myself that I need to 'trust the reader.'

Cynthia Lee said...

Recently I purged about 10,000 words from an ms. The whole time I was shaking my head, wondering why I'd put the stuff in there.

I need to remember Stephen King's dictum that first you write the book because you're telling the story to yourself and then you write it again so that you can tell it to someone else.

magpiewrites said...

I'm terrible at this but I try not to get too obsessed about it. Like Cynthia mentioned, Stephen King had the right of it, write your way through so you know what the story is, then re-write it so you can tell it to someone else.

I was having serious issues with my WIP. My MC was literally stuck on the road to where the big THING happens and I didn't know how to get him there. I tried putting him on a horse, having him walk, go with others, alone, nothing worked. Then someone from my crit group said 'um, can't he just 'be' there? We don't have to see him arrive, do we?'

As stupid as this sounds, it had never occurred to me!

Commander Kip said...

*is hooked* *wants part 2*

Sarah Wedgbrow said...

I'm guilty of leaving too much out, but your metaphor is so interesting and informative--and useful. Looking forward to part 2.

Katie Anderson said...

I have been thinking about this too. and sadly enough, it came to me while watch a realty show on Bravo. I thought, "Hmmm... I only really see about ten total minutes of this girl's day before they jump to a clip tomorrow. And then perhaps that night and then maybe the next week." But it's all the most interesting bits of her life - the ones that make me want to know more. So yeah - maybe think like a reality TV show?

Evie said...

As a reader, I love when authors trust me : ) When they do, I experience the story on a visceral level.

MacDougal Street Baby said...

Another great and useful post, Laini. I'm with Magpie. I read King's On Writing recently and the idea of getting it all down before pruning it back was really important for me. I'm perpetually editing my writing, so much so, that I rarely get to the end of anything.

Have a cozy Sunday!

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