Elmore Leonard famously said of his writing: “I try to leave out the parts people skip.” Solid advice for writers of all levels of experience. But what exactly are “the parts people skip?” How do you identify whether you’re managing to leave them out of your writing or not?
I had a couple of encounters this past month that immediately made me think about that quote– and made me think about its relevance in a new light. The first was a conversation I had with my oldest daughter a couple of weeks ago. We were about to start reading a book together–one that my daughter had already read by herself and wanted to share with me– and I cracked open the cover and started reading the prologue.
Bella: Why are you reading that?
Me: Because the author wrote it. She thought it was important enough to work hard writing it, so we should think it’s important enough to read.
[Bella sighs. If thought bubbles could appear in the air over people's heads the way they do in cartoons, hers would read "Oh help, my mother is talking like an author again."]
Bella: Mom, look. *patiently flips pages and points to the words ‘Chapter 1’* This is where the story starts. Right here.
That’s kind of profound, if you think about it. My daughter is seven. She’s only been reading novel-length books independently for somewhere around a year and a half. And yet she’s already come to the conclusion (not from me, obviously) that prologues are something to be skipped, that the actual ‘story’ starts with Chapter 1. Which happens to be exactly the argument made by people (Elmore Leonard was, in fact, one of them) who claim that prologues should be avoided.
Which brings me to my second encounter of the month.
A few days later, I happened to read a blog post by Rachel Aaron about accessing her inner reader as she worked to construct her stories. I highly recommend it, it’s an excellent article. Essentially, she talks about the difference she noticed when she thought about stories (both other people’s and her own) as a writer vs. simply a reader. As someone wearing a critique-oriented ‘writer’ hat and someone reader purely for entertainment. Now, as an author, I’ve written prologues. Out of respect for other authors, I will read them in other people’s stories. I’ve never been a believer in the common internet dictum about ‘never’ writing prologues. But as a reader, have I ever absolutely fallen in love with a book based on the prologue? There are exceptions to every rule, I’m sure, but I can’t think of many. Far more often, I’m kind of slogging my way through the prologue waiting for the story to start, to be honest. Note my off-the-cuff answer to my girl (even though I wasn’t at all thinking in those terms at the time) was about the author, really, rather than us as readers.
The post overall made me consider other times when as a reader, I’m either slogging or tempted to skim. The parts I want to skip, in other words. Here are the couple of others besides prologues that I came up with:
- Dream sequences. Especially when they’re written in italics. I’m not sure why– I suspect it may be because the italics are an immediate signal that the passage is occurring outside the ‘reality’ of the story– but I really have to work not to yadda yadda my way through a dream.
- Internal reflection that goes on for pages and pages.
- Long descriptions of setting. This one is trickier because there are some books where the setting itself is a character, and a wonderful one at that. Books where I read and re-read the descriptive passages because they’re just so beautifully painted. But at other times, I know I’ve felt like a long description of a room or house or office just stalled the momentum of the story and made me want to skim to get back to the real action.
Now, as an author, I’ve included every one of those components into books at times. And again, I’ve also read other authors’ books where any and/or all of those were pulled off brilliantly. But thinking about the parts I tend to skip as a reader did make me more aware and I hope more critical of the choices I make as an author. If I decide to write another dream sequence, I’ll make absolutely sure it’s necessary. If I find an passage of internal dialogue stretching on and on, I think I’ll be inclined to see whether it can be worked into an actual dialogue between two characters instead. All in all, I’m looking forward to applying both Elmore Leonard’s and Rachel Aaron’s advice to my future books.
Although– full disclosure– my husband proofread this article for me and fell asleep. Maybe I’ve still got a ways to go. :-)
What about you? What parts (if any) are you tempted to skip? Do you find a difference in your attitude towards a book when you read as a writer vs. as a reader?