Are you looking to tighten up your prose and make it more memorable and compelling? Trying to get your readers to the action faster?
Why not leave out the boring parts?
Why not spend more time writing the boring details?
One of the things that trips up writers is the idea that the readers want to get to the action of a story quicky—and by action, they mean something exciting!
The urge to cut straight to the action hits us hardest at the beginning of a story. We try to start with something “exciting,” a big bang. We’ve probably heard “start in the middle of the action” a million times, and we’ve come to believe it!
Then, during most of the rest of the story, we jump from one moment of exciting drama to the next, checking plot points off our outlines as we go.
Finally, at the end of the story, we get to the climax, resolve it, then brush our hands off as we congratulate ourselves on a job well done!
As a depressing postscript, we look back and say, “I did what I was supposed to do…why is my story not selling?”
Little do we realize that the boring parts that we skipped…
…were exactly the parts the reader was looking for.
What Readers Are Looking For
You might think you know what readers want to read. You’re a reader yourself, you should know! But a lot of the time, what we want as readers gets suppressed in favor of what we were taught was “right,” like “starting in the middle.”
The problem is that it’s the “little things” that charms the reader into reading the books they do: characters’ personality traits and other characteristic elements; interactions between characters; moments of pleasure, irony, awareness, and more; a particularly telling setting detail.
Readers want to escape our world and enter into a different one. They want to feel, to experience, to observe—to belong.
It’s easy to focus on plot. Plot seems like it should be the most important part of a story. It’s how we describe stories to others, and it’s the thing that our teachers most likely hammered home: follow this plot structure or else.
Helping the Reader Escape
But plot will only affect the reader if you’ve helped them escape their world and enter yours.
The basic tools of helping the reader escape (or “immersing the reader in your story”) are:
- Details, particularly ones that strike the senses.
- The point of view character’s opinionated reporting of those details.
The best details are the ones that tell the reader both about the scene your point of view character are in, and about the character themselves.
In any given scene, a fashion designer should notice the clothes: their design, the quality with which they’re built, what they think the choice of clothing says about the other character (perhaps incorrectly).
Is your fashion designer a jerk? Or extremely empathetic? They can tell people how great they are…they can show how great they are by doing something “generous”…or they can observe the world in ways that only a jerk, or an empathetic, person could do.
We often doubt whether a person’s words are accurate. Actions speak louder than words. But actions can present a false front, too, a public persona.
So if you really want to get to know a person, you have to read their mind—which is exactly what you do when a writer describes something from a character’s point of view, being sure to include the character’s, well, point of view on the world.
However, those two tools aren’t exactly “the boring details” I’m talking about…
Writing The Boring Details
Even when a writer has mastered the art of throwing in opinionated details from the character’s point of view, there’s something they often miss: writing the boring details.
There are details you shouldn’t write:
- Details that don’t have character opinion.
- Details the character doesn’t care about.
- The same details more than once in the same area of description.
- Summaries of details without any actual details (as in: “He looked sad” without any evidence of what looking sad actually looks like!).
- Explanations of how something works that isn’t personally relevant to the point of view character.
(That last one, by the way, is also known as an “info dump,” and people obsess about not having them. However, in my opinion, it’s better to have an info dump than to leave the reader mystified about how something works!)
The boring details that writers can often miss, but that readers adore:
- Descriptions of the setting.
- Descriptions of how something works.
- Descriptions of a previous interaction with another character.
- Descriptions of history.
- Descriptions of blow-by-blow emotions, reactions, and opinions.
- Descriptions of what something means or implies.
- Descriptions of plans, particularly when they go wrong.
- Descriptions of little actions by the characters (as if they were actors showing off their “acting chops”).
As long as these elements are relevant to the character and told with opinion, you almost cannot go wrong here and add too much—unless you start repeating yourself or forget to add the character’s opinion.
Where writers go wrong is in thinking that the things that they are familiar with, as writers, are boring to readers.
What Makes the Boring Details Good for the Reader?
Let’s take an example of a writer who had a series of terrible jobs as a young person working in restaurants, as a dishwasher, server, prep cook, and eventually as a manager.
The writer is working on a mystery set in a restaurant. They remember to describe the food and the ambiance at the front of the house. The murder happens in the middle of the busy dining room on the weekend; the clues point toward the murderer coming from outside the restaurant, bumping into the server, and poisoning the victim’s drink during a moment of distraction.
“Great!” says our writer. “I’ll show the scenes where the police investigate the scene of the crime, and just sum up what happens at the back of the restaurant. There aren’t any clues there, anyway.”
Now, the writer does need to describe the food and the ambiance in the public area of the restaurant.
They technically don’t need to describe anything else.
However, if the writer does describe something happening in the back of the restaurant, they can add:
- Red herrings to the plot.
- Interesting and fun character interactions between the main character and the other characters in the restaurant.
- Past history to the main character (what previous experiences do they have in restaurants that might be coloring their opinion—a previous case of food poisoning, perhaps?).
- A plot twist (possibly surprising the writer!) that involves a second killer whom we meet at the back of the house.
- A sense of expertise for the reader, so that every time they step into a similar restaurant, they experience a sense of pleasure that they know what’s going on behind the scenes.
The last detail, a sense of expertise, is important but rarely gets talked about. Readers want to feel like they have been to the settings you show them, whether real or pure imagination. They want to feel like they know a little bit more than the average person about how the things you include in your story work, from magic to repairing a watch. They want to feel like they have insider knowledge and insight about people and history. They want to feel like locals and like tourists; they want to see the public areas and hear the public version—but they also want to see backstage and hear the real story, too.
How Do You Know If You Need to Write the Boring Part?
Mostly, writers either know all this, or can work it out. In theory.
But in practice, it’s much harder to implement. When it feels like your every instinct is telling you not to write something, it’s hard to make yourself write it!
Here’s the deal: if you find yourself feeling bored by something or thinking that you won’t write something because there’s no point, write it.
Tell yourself you can cut it later (which of course you can).
But I can almost guarantee that you will not regret writing the boring part. Something will come of it, as long as you make it relevant to your point of view character somehow, and give them an opinion about it.
Think about your favorite stories, regardless of medium (TV, books, video games):
Comedy becomes funnier, when it includes small details that cover how this situation is so, so wrong (look up “The Salt and Pepper Diner” on YouTube for a great example from John Mulaney).
Grief becomes more poignant, when it includes the small details that showed the world kept going despite tragedy (look up the funeral scene from Four Weddings and a Funeral, and notice how the scene starts with typical images from a funeral, then begins adding unexpected small details, like how angry one of the character looks as the coffin is being carried, the unemotional look on another character’s face, the smokestack and industrial factory in the background as the door of the hearse is closed, and note when the emotion of grief hits you).
The story of “how lovers met” becomes more memorable, when it includes the lovers dealing with little things that interrupt the way their romance clearly should go (I’m a sucker for awkward meet-cutes, and recommend Felicity chewing on a pen during Oliver and Felicity’s first meeting in Arrow or Anne Shirley busting a school slate after getting called “carrots” by the love of her life, Gilbert.)
Even action becomes more thrilling, when it includes a laborious, detailed, slow setup (look up how Zorg introduces the ZF1 weapon in The Fifth Element, and note the time he spends explaining how the weapon works.)
Look at your favorite “moments” from your favorite stories and ask, “What do I really love about these moment? What pushes it over the top?”
Chances are, it’s something that, as a writer, you might be tempted to call…a boring detail.