Editing, Self-editing Tips, The Writer's Life, Writing tips

Make Something Happen

“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”Elmore Leonard

I love this quote. Not just because it indirectly gives purpose to the existence of content editors. (Mostly because of that.) But also because it’s impossibly clever and initially appears to be cleverly impossible.

I mean, how do you do that?

Some readers tend to skip long descriptive sections. So you should leave those out, right? Not necessarily. There’s nothing wrong with good descriptive writing. If your voice happens to be descriptive, some readers are going to go skipping. You can’t stop them.

Other readers become impatient with anything that reminds them even remotely of a history textbook. No problem. Just delete it all. Um, unless your novel kind of needs that historical content. Which it probably does. Expect more skippers.

But we’re supposed to leave out the part…

Look, you’re not going to please all the readers. Don’t even try.

There is, however, one part readers tend to skip that you can address, regardless of your writing voice.

The part where nothing happens.

The part where characters simply pass the time. The part where characters start to repeat themselves unnecessarily. The part where the world slows to a crawl, not so the characters can collect themselves in anticipation of The Next Big Thing, but because you don’t really know what to say.

The part where the story stops moving*.

This often happens in the middle, but it can happen anywhere.

Conventional editorial wisdom (mine included) suggests the way to fix this is to Make Something Happen.

But before you strike your protagonist with lightning, take note of these “Three Rules for Making Something Happen.” (They’re not really rules. I don’t like rules. But it’s easier to call them rules than “Really Good Suggestions Based on Years of Editing Experience.”)

1. The Something must be notable. It needs to be significant enough to capture the characters’ attention. (And thus, the readers’ attention.) Sudden death works. So do natural disasters and other surprises. But your Something can also be a small thing, as long as it has not-so-small implications. A character’s decision to use the blue mug instead of the green one might not seem notable, but it could be if there’s a measurable risk in using the blue one. Here’s a simple test for those smaller actions: if there is no cost to the character, it’s probably not notable.

2. The Something must be believable. This may seem obvious, but nevertheless it needs to be stated. Have you ever rolled your eyes at an author’s decision to “shake things up” with an event that came out of proverbial left field? That author ignored this rule. They knew the story had stalled, rightly wanted to fix it, then chose an action completely out of context from the rest of the story. The Something needs to make sense. Yes, it can be a Big Surprise. Big Surprises are a great way to shake up a story. But if that surprise has no basis in the story so far, readers won’t buy it. (I see this a lot in fantasy and science fiction. Hey, we’ll just add this new ability/technology, and it’s all better. Nope. Not unless you have previously built a foundation for this thing.) Don’t drop an anvil on your protagonist unless the story takes place in a structurally-unsound anvil factory.

3. The characters’ reactions to the Something must be reasonable. A character you’ve painted as stoic isn’t suddenly going to become a bubbling mess of tears just because you killed his dog. Oh, he might show a crack in his armor, but he’s not going to change right there after the Something. (Unless, of course, you’ve been carefully crafting his arc so he’s just one crisis away from implosion.) If the characters react out of character to the Something (or not at all), your Something becomes little more than an ink spill. And if you don’t know how your characters would act…well, you have a bigger problem than the “part readers tend to skip.” Fix your characters.

And…that’s it. Blog post done. I tried to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip. If I failed, feel free to toss a grenade in there somewhere.


*”Moving” isn’t a synonym for “action-packed.” Some stories move like a bicycle messenger. Some move like a ballet dancer. Some move like a leaf lifted by a gentle breeze. And some don’t appear to be moving at all, yet somehow stir the reader in ways that feel like motion. I happen to love stories that move in unconventional ways. But they’re not for everyone. And certainly not for every writer. It takes unusual talent to do unconventional well. 

6 thoughts on “Make Something Happen

  1. I hope you will laugh when you read this – I actually skipped most of the post! I’m not writing a novel at the moment, so little of it was relevant to me, therefore I skimmed it then put it aside for a later reading when I had time (because relevant or not, I always enjoy reading your words.)

    Blogging in particular has taught me that readers are a self-centred lot. They are really only interested in writing which gives them something. Like you said yourself (see, I did read it!) different people will care about different things; I think all you can do in the end is make *yourself* care about what you are writing, and have a sincere purpose for it, and people will respond heart-to-heart with the emotion you have invested in your words.

    By the way, you are one of my favourite “unconventional” writers, and I definitely think you have the talent to do it well. Infact, you have extraordinary talent. Some of your stories may seem like a mild breeze but they stir a tempest in me.

  2. Ah… good post. Useful. The first novel I wrote stopped moving right before the end. I have set it aside for several years hoping that inspiration would strike on how to get it to the end. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but each option I came up with failed one or more of your three tests. I may use your three guidelines to sketch out the choices, and then write the damn ending! Thanks again for the post.

  3. This post is brilliant. I discovered your story site through Jenny (the bloggess), and thus discovered your writing site. Thank you so much for existing. Everything I’ve read so far has been brilliant, honest, practical and sensible. Thank you.
    I’m inspired to pick my novel back up (I’m a poet most of the time) just so I can use your tips. 🙂

  4. I very much enjoy your posts and have been trying to email you to see if I can get on your list of January clients for a novel edit, but I can’t connect with the email links on your website for some reason. Are you available to edit a 75,000 word novel? I think the red pen edit would be what I need. My novel has been through many revisions, so, I need a totally fresh eye at this point. I hope to hear from you! Thanks! (I’ve already published four works of fiction).
    Kathryn Abdul-baki

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