I thought this was going to be a simple research and post project. Oops—wrong again.
First off, let me give you some background. I have had a problem with getting through transitions and summaries in my writing. Not every time. But when my writing snags it’s usually not on character actions, reactions, scene description, dialogue or the step-by-step illustration of a scene. It’s on the narrative asides, the summaries and the stuff between scenes. What I think of as the non-scene writing.
So, what do I mean by non-scene writing? For my purposes, non-scene writing is when the writer summarizes events, descriptions or feelings, expounds and explains things to the reader such as background information, or transitions and segues from one step-by-step narration of actions and reactions in a sequence to the next.
Here are a few examples from books I love—
Example 1. Ch 71 of Fellside by M. R. Carey—a book that I cannot recommend enough—begins like a scene with one of the characters walking down a hall. But then, with two sentences, Carey segues into three and a half pages of background information and opinion, what I think of as non-scene writing. Maybe English majors would call it narrative exposition. Here’s an excerpt illustrating what I mean—
“… The room had got its nickname because it was the biggest of the meeting rooms and nobody was allowed to call a meeting there except Save-Me Scratchwell, their beloved and devout leader …”
Though sandwiched within a scene, those words and the other 700 or so words around them are not actually part of the scene. If the scene was in a movie, none of that background would come through without a voice-over. But those words matter. They add context, flavor, texture and mood.
Example 2. From chapter four of Paladin of Souls by Louise McMaster Bujold. (A brilliant book, btw, and the audio version is fabulous, too.)
“…The next day’s riding began early and ran long, but slowly the barrens of Baocia fell away behind them. The country grew more rolling, better watered, and better wooded, running up toward the mountains just visible on the western horizon. It was still a bony land at heart…”
That’s a summary. And Bujold continues summarizing for five more pages before starting the next real-time scene. Those six pages are interesting and intriguing, they are not fluff, but they are not step-by-step character actions, reactions and interactions either.
Example 3. From Ch. 22 of Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (again, a favorite book)—
“…The money Mister Hertzoon had left with Kaz and Jordie ran out the following week. Jordie tried to return his new coat, but the shop wouldn’t take it, and Kaz’s boots had clearly been worn…”
Bardugo summarizes background for two more pages then segues seamlessly into a half page scene, then back to summarizing for a couple of pages before segueing back into step-by-step, real-time scene writing.
Whether you consider those excerpts as examples of scene set-up, soliloquizing, exposition, narrative summary or non-scene writing, how well a writer handles those sections often makes or breaks a book. Clunky non-scene writing comes off as telling (boo, hiss, evil). Good non-scene writing adds context, mood and feel and flows seamlessly into and out of scenes that it can take careful reading to separate scene writing from the non-scene writing—even when it’s a chunk of text that goes on for pages.
So how much of a book is actually non-scene writing?
Half. I’m not kidding.
I did an experiment. I picked three books that I’d already read and loved, all by different authors. Since I’m doing this to improve my own writing, I only picked books written in third person because I like to write in third person. I started reading on my Kindle, highlighting the non-scene chunks of writing. I didn’t highlight one or two sentence or single paragraph asides buried within scenes, but only big chunks of non-scene writing.
Mostly, the non-scene writing sandwiched scenes, but in some cases, there’d be half a page of scene writing, a segue into multiple pages of non-scene writing, then a segue back to a scene again.
In all three books, the first chapters had more non-scene writing than scene writing. So much in fact, that I got a little overwhelmed. But I thought maybe it was just an early chapter thing, so I started picking chapters at random throughout each book: a couple in the beginning, three or four in the middle, and a couple toward the end.
After a while, when I was still highlighting page after page of text, I changed from highlighting non-scene writing to highlighting the scene writing instead.
After two weeks of this—an hour here, and an hour there— I’m now estimating that non-scene writing accounts for 40—60% of a book.
That’s a lot. Even if my random sampling wasn’t random enough, it’s still waaaaaaaay more than I expected. Which tells me two things—
- Non-scene writing is every bit as important to a good book as scene writing is, most people just don’t realize it. (At least I didn’t)
- Coming up with guidelines and rules-of-thumb for how to do it well is going to take study, more effort and far more time than I thought.
Now, my numbers come from books that I think are brilliant. It’s writing I love. Books you love may be different. First person narratives may be different. But since I’m doing all this to help me, I’m not worrying about other types of books. Though I think if you sat down and highlighted passages from the books you like best, you’d find a lot more non-scene writing in them than you think. Give it a try; you might be surprised. (But do it on an e-reader so you don’t deface that precious hard copy.)
My Action Plan
Sticking with the same three books, I’m going to first try to categorize the different types of non-scene writing: summary, background, segues etc. Then, using those books as my references, I’m going to analyze the different groups of non-scene writing, looking for common threads. My goal is to then come up with specific guidelines on how to write those kinds of narration to use when my writing is not flowing. Since the best way to learn something is to teach it as well as practice it, I plan on posting what I learn here. It may not be useful to anyone else, but I’m pretty sure it will help me.