SUMMARY: Ed Wilson talks about the importance of leaving out the boring stuff
I believe it was the legendary Elmore Leonard who when asked about the secret to his success replied that, “I try to leave out the stuff that people tend to skip over.” While this sounds like simple intuitive advice, it is often one of the hardest things for a new (or even experienced) writer to do. It is because, I, the writer, know my subject and know what I must tell the reader so they will know what I am talking about. This is true in both non-fiction, and in fiction writing as well. Let me first address the non-fiction angle.
Often, a topic needs a background information section. This is commonly called level setting. Advanced readers usually skip over this stuff because they assume they already know the background (many times unfortunately they do not, and when they come to the section where they NEEDED that information, they are often frustrated). Beginners often skip over this section as well because they assume it will be too technical, and they only want to get up and running. So this is a perfect case of the stuff people tend to skip over. Now, as a subject matter expert, I feel the information must be presented. So what can I do? There are three things I can do to help this.
- After I write the section, go back over and see what I can delete, and what must stay. Think about moving some of the essential reference information to an appendix. I did this on one of my WMI books, and turned a 65 page boring chapter into a 33 page very compelling chapter. It was thanks to one of my peer reviewers who had the heart to tell me the chapter was boring.
- Think of ways to call attention to the essential details. I use all formatting aids at my disposal. Tables, Hints, comments, callouts, readers tips all are fair game if the series style guide permits them. Also think about graphics. I once turned five pages of boring detailed information into a single flow chart. Visio is a great tool for creating professional looking flow charts, and it will export many common formats that are acceptable to publishers. If not, it will usually be good enough to give their in-house graphics team a starting point for what you have in mind.
- Break the sections up. Give the section headings compelling names. Instead of a single A level head that is called Background, break it into several lesser headings, and maybe call one the essentials, another how it works, and still another a deep dive. In this way, you are grouping the information for the different levels of writers.
When it comes to fiction writing, I find that writers often become victims of the protagonist’s backstory. Often writing guides have lengthy forms that the writer is supposed to fill out. It includes everything from where the person went to high school, to what the first pet was. After spending weeks on this exercise, the writer is anxious to turn some of this work into page count on the work in progress. So, boom, page after page of boring stuff that readers skip over.
When in doubt, cut it out! Quite often less is more. Do I really need to know if the protagonist is a seven foot tall white guy that resembles a mop? Does this make any difference than if he was a five foot tall person of oriental descent? It might, or it might not. If the stature of the protagonist is going to be important later on in the story, then maybe the detail should be in there. But if not, then leave it out. It don’t matter. For instance, in the first case, the protagonist is captured, and locked in a pit. Ten foot from the floor, is a chain that releases an emergency ladder. Ok. For the seven foot dude, no sweat. For the five foot guy, there must be another avenue of escape. In this example, the detail is important and should be presented. In fact, it is essential to build credibility. If all along I am reading thinking the protagonist is a five foot tall dude ( for example, no mention of him bending down to get into a cap, sitting on his knees when he flies, bumping his head when walking into a diner) and then suddenly he jumps ten feet and escapes, I am going to feel cheated as a reader.