When I was a writing student, a teacher in my program was famous for leaning back after a workshop discussion and saying, “Just tell me a story.” As a piece of advice, it’s almost absurdly on point. “Just tell me a story” is what readers across the country are thinking when they pick up a book. They are rarely interested in matters of craft and language. The problem for writers is that short stories and novels are far different from the stories we tell at bars: they’re much longer. Even if you transcribed the tale of that person you know who goes on and on, the result would be much less than 4000 words, the length of a medium-sized story. So what are all those words doing? That’s probably the biggest question that beginning writers ask. The answer is found in learning what information advances the story and what does not.
One of the clearest examples you’ll ever see of the distinction between story-advancing information and details that should be quickly summarized can be found in Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s novel Balm. You can read the opening pages of the New York Times bestseller at the HarperCollins website.
How the Novel Works
Early in the novel, there is a scene in which one of the main characters, Hemp, has moved to Chicago to search for his wife. He’s introduced to Mrs. Jenkins, a woman who takes boarders, and we’re shown their initial conversation:
She narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar across her face that had taken some of the bridge of her nose with it. “I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do. My husband and me is God-fearing people.”
This dialogue and scene serves two clear purposes. First, it tells the story: how Hemp found a room. But it also shows the reader a character, Mrs. Jenkins, in all her glory. The dialogue is terrific (“I don’t allow no riffraff in my house. That include liars and cheats and no counts, the don’t-want and the can’t-do”) and brings her character to life, so to speak. We can hear her voice. The rest of the scene continues that process of bringing-to-life for both characters:
“I cook once a day. In the morning before you go off to work, you and the mens sit down with my husband. You got to fend for your other eats.”
“Course I don’t allow for no loafing. You can’t sit round here all day.”
“Come on eat. It’s some hoecakes left. You look hungry as a mule. Then get yourself on out in them streets and get some work.”
“Yes, thank you, ma’am.”
“You don’t say much, do you? That’s good. Ain’t room but for one talker round here. Haw!”
The conversation ends with Hemp explaining that he’s looking for his wife and Mrs. Jenkins promising to keep “an ear on it.” As a scene, it makes sense. We’ve been introduced to the characters and given a feel for their personalities; we’ve been drawn into their lives. We’ve also been introduced to the stakes of the story: Will Hemp find his wife? But look at what the novel does next:
Hemp got work loading ship a week later and earned his first wages as a free man. He bought a sack, shoes, pants, but even his first paying job could not help him shake the sadness. He asked everyone he met, but no one knew of a woman fitting Annie’s description. He decided it would be better for him to stay in one place. It did not make sense for both him and Annie to be moving around.
Before the month was out he knew that as nice as Mr. Jenkins was, he could not go on sleeping in that tight, dark room.
While the novel dramatizes and puts in-scene the initial conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, it summarizes a month of conflict: Hemp’s search for a job, his fruitless search for his wife, and his decision to find a new place to live. All of that could have been the subject of engrossing scenes, yet Perkins-Valdez summarized it. Why? The answer could tell us something about what is important in a story. In this case, what was important was establishing the characters, their voices, their desires. Once we understand those things—once we get a feel for the characters—we don’t need to see their every move. We intuitively understand how those summarized scenes might have played out, and we can skip ahead to another pivotal moment.
The Writing Exercise
Let’s dramatize character and voice and summarize action, using Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez as a model:
- Choose a pivotal moment in your story. By pivotal, I mean that someone acts, something changes, or a decision gets made. Our usual approach is often to put this moment in scene, but we’re going to try a different approach.
- Find or create an interaction that occurs before the pivotal moment. As in Balm, the interaction can be between two characters: a conversation or any moment that requires the characters to work together or against each other or do something at the same time. But the interaction can also be between the character and an object or place: think about Jack London’s famous story “To Build a Fire” and its scene with the man interacting with the wood that he’s trying to burn.
- Use that interaction to show off a character. The scene from Balm could easily come with a title: “This is what Mrs. Perkins is like and how newly-arrived Hemp reacts to her.” All of the dialogue and descriptions (“narrowed her eyes, wrinkling a scar”) actively build our sense of Mrs. Perkins. Hemp’s simple dialogue (“Yes, ma’am”) does the same thing. The goal is to give the reader an understanding of who these characters are. Once we have that, we will usually understand their actions. So, choose a moment that allows you, through dialogue or action, to show off the characters, to give the reader a sense for who they are.
- Give the scene purpose. In Balm, Hemp is looking for a room and for his wife. He’s not simply shooting the breeze with Mrs. Jenkins. In your scene, something needs to be at stake. The stakes can easily be resolved, as they are in Balm: Hemp gets a room but doesn’t find out anything about his wife. Not every scene needs a pulsing, Hans Zimmer drumbeat in the background. But every scene needs a reason to exist.
- After the scene is over, summarize the pivotal moment. Balm summarizes Hemp’s search for a job and his wife and his decision to find a new place to live. After seeing his conversation with Mrs. Jenkins, we can imagine him doing these things, and so it’s not necessary to show them. In the same way, you can dramatize a character-building moment and then trust that the traits you established will be clear enough to make sense during a quick summary of events.
The goal is to build a story that relies more on character and voice (which are inherently interesting) and less on minute-to-minute action (which can become tedious).