Start in the Middle, Fill in the Gaps Later

It's a sunset. Everybody already knows what it looks like.

Sometimes a scene springs from me fully formed, like Athena from Zeus’s forehead. And sometimes, every word has to be squeezed from my neurons like the last bit of toothpaste at the bottom of the tube.

What’s the difference?

It took me awhile to figure it out, but descriptions bore the living hell out of me. Some scenes require more narrative than others. You can’t tell a story at a constant breakneck speed. The characters need to breathe. The reader needs to breathe. The writer needs to breathe. So, sometimes the pace does require something to slow it down. Still, I find those scenes difficult to write.

The best scenes for me, the ones that are easiest to write, start in the middle of something already in progress. This is especially true with first scenes in a novel. My first book starts with my main character hovering around a corner, clutching a toilet brush as a weapon, and about to jump out at an intruder at her kitchen table. The second in the series starts in her swimming pool. She’s covered in blood and mucous and has both arms shoved up inside the birth canal of a sea serpent. Book one of my new djinn series starts off with my main character dressed as a pirate waitress, getting ready to set a customer on fire because his hand is on her ass.

I suppose all of those things require some description to set everything up, but when something really interesting is going on, nobody cares what every character is wearing or what the wall sconces look like. I prefer to spatter description in between other things rather than lose momentum by taking up several paragraphs as an aside.

But this is coming from somebody who tends to under-write and fill in the gaps later, rather than write extra to be deleted later.

In the slower scenes, I get bored. I meander. I let my characters ruminate on the color of their coffee mugs. I let them contemplate their navels, discussing the pros and cons of innies versus outies.

So, how do I know what to describe and what to leave out? I look for the holes later and fill them in. What gets told and what gets shown? In a great scene full of action, show it all. If a description is necessary to fill in the scene, character interaction with the environment or dialogue does a better job than straight description.

But what do I know? I have a main character who’s known for her quirky style and bizarre outfits. Number of descriptions of these outfits in book two? Zero. Completely forgot to describe them.

Guess I know where to start editing.

Rachel is the author of the urban fantasy Monster Haven series from Carina Press. She believes in magic, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks, and putting things off until stress gets them done faster at the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas.


  • Justin says:

    It drives me crazy when I, and other writers, dive into lengthy exposition that really doesn’t effect the story. I think that is 30% of why I don’t like George R. R. Martin. :)

  • R.L. Naquin says:

    I haven’t tried to read his books yet. I’ve got the first one, but I’m wary. Anne Rice tells a helluva story, but I feel like I’m wading through 50 pages describing the color, scent, weave, and 300-year history of the character’s smoking jacket in order to get to the plot.

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