by Michael Mohr
It has taken me years and years of writing my own novels, stories and nonfiction, not to mention editing countless others’ manuscripts, to finally over time realize that there is such a thing as bread and meat in writing.
What the hell am I talking about? Simple. I am constantly telling my book clients to work on SCENE versus summary, back story, explanation. Basically the old Tried and True: Show don’t tell. Of course your novel needs some back story, to explain what happened to the character prior to now, ergo illuminating the character’s psychological/emotional wound, which is relevant to the current story being told. Yes, we sometimes need some well-written TELLING sections, also explaining important moments or key ideas in the book.
But, for the most part, you’re going to land your readers’ love of the characters, setting, conflict, tension, plot, etc, by SHOWING us what happens, aka, by using SCENES. In other words: action. Make the characters actually DO things, interact, bump into each other, react, fight, argue. But make sure that their fighting and arguing and conflict actually moves the story forward. When A happens it must force B to happen which will initiate C. If characters simply fight or argue and nothing results from that…essentially that is anecdotal and is not relevant because it doesn’t truly drive the story forward. That’s a lack of plot issue.
Here’s where the “bread and meat” idea comes in. This is a common mistake. When you have your scene in mind—and every chapter should contain scene; characters doing things—it is your job, as the author, to get us to that scene, the authentic driver of the story and plot, as fast as you can.
I see this all the time: pages upon pages of setup (the bread) before we finally get to the scene (the meat). I refer to them as bread and meat because, like bread being full of carbs, an opening anecdotal setup in a chapter is full of carbs: It might be tasty and filling for a second, but soon you’ll be hungry again. You need meat. Protein. The solution is to eliminate or severely trim down that slow, boring opening stuff and lead us as directly as possible to the scene that actually contributes to the story.
Again, I am not, for the sake of clarification here, suggesting that 100 percent of your novel should be action. That would be too much. Even in thriller novels you need introspection, character development, and telling sections that expound upon the thoughts and ideas, emotions, etc of the characters and the plot. There’s no escaping that. But again, for the vast majority of novels, you must face off with scenes, your character moving and grooving, shaking and baking. They have to interact and react to push the story forward.
So my advice? Go through each chapter of your book and check to see how long it takes in each chapter to get from A to B, from the bread to the meat. Cut down the bread or eliminate the bread as much as possible. Think of it as trying to lose weight. Bread isn’t going to be your friend. (For vegetarians out there, I’m sorry.)
You have to write your True North when you write novels; you have to come from the heart. No one can deny that. On the flip side, you have to consider your readers. Most readers are just like you: They have busy lives, husbands and wives, kids, work, etc. In other words: They have limited time.
Every author has a nonverbal contract with their reader: This will be an interesting, worthy, worth it journey; you won’t regret plowing through 300 pages of my book. It’s sort of an Author’s Promise to the reader. Some call it the “physics of reading,” this notion that there are unspoken “rules” you must more or less follow in order to keep readers’ respect and interest. No doubt it is a chore, especially throwing craft into the bag. You must write well, write true, and yet also write entertainingly.
Give it a try on your own novel or short story. Reread your work with objective eyes. If you can’t, then put it away for a month, work on other projects, and return to it when ready. Or hand it to someone you trust, giving them a red pen. Next, try your best (or ask your friend to try their best) to cut out/trim as much from before the “meat” scene as you can.
Do this with a few chapters and then reread it. See how much faster and more interesting the story becomes? Usually, the “bread” is really the fear of the author (thinking the reader “needs to understand” A, B and C) and the scene is the actual story. Walk through your fear and get us to the story. Believe in yourself and the reader is that much more likely to believe in the fictional world you’ve created.
Go for it.
Guest post contributed by Michael Mohr. Michael is a Bay Area writer, former literary agent’s assistant and freelance book editor. His fiction has been published in: Adelaide Literary Magazine; Bethlehem Writers’ Roundtable; Fiction Magazines; Tincture; and more. His blog pieces have been included in Writers’ Digest; Writer Unboxed and MASH. His writing/editing website and blog is http://www.michaelmohrwriter.com .