How to be interesting (Writers on Writing)
Liven up your fiction by ditching these dull scenes
Your job as a novelist is to entertain your readers. Enlighten them, sure. Wow them with beautiful sentences, yes. Give them something to think about, someone to relate to, a new way of seeing an old thing: absolutely. But job number one is to entertain. You have to give them a good story.
If your novel is boring, it will be difficult for you to find a literary agent or publisher. If you do manage to land a publisher despite being boring, you probably won’t have much luck with readers. No one likes to be bored. As a novelist, not boring your reader is half the battle.
If your novel feels a bit sluggish or dull, consider ditching the following scenes and passages:
Overly long descriptions of characters
Why take a page to describe your protagonist when you can do it more efficiently in a couple of sentences? A few significant details are all the reader needs. Provide a sense of a character rather than a laundry list of physical traits. In the opening paragraph of The Investigation, for example, Philippe Claudel provides a bare-bones description of the investigator, making a point of how unremarkable his protagonist is:
He was a small, slightly round fellow with thinning hair…The Investigator was, in a way, a disappearing person, no sooner seen than forgotten. His aspect was as insubstantial as fog, dreams, or an expelled breath…
Notice how Kate Atkinson brilliantly sums up a character in One Good Turn, not with a physical description but by telling us how he handles flies:
He didn’t even kill flies in the house, instead he patiently stalked them, trapping them with a glass and a plate before letting them free.
Nothing Atkinson could say about this man’s physical appearance would more solidly define the character in the reader’s mind than the image of him patiently stalking flies.
You know those scenes from Peanuts when the teacher is talking, and it sounds like wah-wah-wah? That’s what readers hear if you have a character unnecessarily babbling on. Break up long monologues with gestures, exposition, and interruptions from other characters.
Anything about your grandma’s sofa
Unless it has particular historical significance that you can somehow make dramatic, like, say, your grandma had carnal relations with Elvis on that sofa, we don’t need to know that it’s paisley or plaid, corduroy or pleather. We don’t need to see every coffee stain. “She sat on the sofa” is infinitely better than “She sat on the purple and blue paisley sofa.” This standard applies to all description: make it significant and/or memorable. If it doesn’t matter, if it doesn’t somehow enhance the fictional dream or feel essential to the rhythm of the sentence, don’t mention it.
Any long scene that doesn’t have a purpose
The reader must know something at the end of the scene she didn’t know before. Something about the world of the novel or our understanding of the character must be different at the end of each scene. If the scene has no purpose, ditch it.
Any short scene that doesn’t have a purpose
Same as above
Within the world of a novel, echoes are good. They remind us what came before. They give the reader a sense of “aha,” of narrative memory. On the other hand, if you show your characters doing or saying the same thing over and over again, without a clear purpose for doing so, you will bore the reader.
Let’s say your character has a specific way of preparing her coffee, and she does it every day at six a.m., and her way of preparing coffee reveals something significant about her. Describe her making the coffee once, and only once. After that, “She made coffee” will do. The reader remembers how she makes her coffee, so there’s no reason to go through the motions again.
Scenes requiring the reader to constantly go back to the front of the book to reference a family tree
Just because Some Very Famous Writers did it doesn’t mean you should.
Characters revealed only through brand names or cliched codes
Driving a candy red Porsche, drinking Bud Light six-packs on the trailer porch, carrying a Prada bag, and the absolute worst brand name cliche number one, Old Spice. (Who actually wears that anymore?) Of course, your villain can drive a Porsche, but external codes can’t be all we know about her. Give us something unique, something specific, to that particular character in that particular place and time.
Lyrical descriptions of the moon
Unless you are Carl Sagan and/or you are writing about space, or you’re Nicolas Cage in Moonstruck.
Conversations in which nothing is revealed
Every section of dialogue has to do something. It must reveal character and advance the story. At its best, dialogue shows intimacy or conflict, or simultaneously intimacy and conflict, between characters, while moving the story along.
Conversations in which a character tries to tell the reader everything
…especially if Character A is telling Character B something Character B already knows for the sole purpose of conveying this information to the reader, as in: “That time I had your baby, it wasn’t really your baby, it was Dillon’s baby, and Dillon is my first cousin once removed…” etc.
Remember: anything that is boring in real life is twice as boring in fiction. People read novels for many reasons — to understand themselves, to understand the world, to escape, to be informed, to take a deep swim in someone else’s head space, to revel in the language — but the primary reason most people read novels is to be entertained. Be a good literary citizen, and keep your end of the bargain.