Thursday, May 24, 2012

24. How to get from Point A to Point B: the logistics of moving characters from one spot to another

The big sex scene, the revealing moment at the end of the book—these are the scenes most novelists look forward to writing. But over the course of a novel, there’s a lot of mundane movement that has to be handled as skillfully as the high drama.

I am talking here about the mechanics of maneuvering your characters through imaginary time and space in order to further the plot. A mistake often made by my novel-writing students (and sometimes by pros) is to include every boring detail.

Say, for example, we have to get John from his workplace to his bedroom/office at home, where an important plot point will occur. Although the following example is exaggerated, it’s not that uncommon to read passages such as:

John came home from work. He parked the car, climbed the flagstone steps, and entered through the kitchen door. He placed his briefcase on the counter, then shrugged out of his suit coat and hung it on the back of a chair. Tired and thirsty, he walked over to the refrigerator and opened the door. He saw a carton of milk. He found a glass in the dish drainer, took out the milk, and poured some of the creamy white liquid. He drank the milk, rinsed the glass, and placed it back in the dish drainer. Then he headed for the front hall and climbed the steps toward his upstairs office.
                                          blue milk

Boring, right? In many novels or stories, there would be no need for anything more than a brief statement: “When John got home he headed for his bedroom office.”

BUT, depending on what John will do or find in that upstairs room, the seemingly boring passage above may turn out to be very important. The key is to choose which parts of it to emphasize, depending on what is going to happen

For example, suppose the milk is poisoned, and John is destined to collapse when he gets upstairs. In that case, we would want to linger on the details of John’s arrival home. Especially if we the audience KNOW that the milk is poisoned, we may be thinking, “No, John, don’t drink it!” As the author, I’d want to add some details such as, “The milk tasted a little old. He checked the expire-by date, and saw it was still good for another week, so he poured another glass.”

What if, instead of a mystery, this is a thriller or sci-fi novel, and John will receive a horrifying message on his home computer? In that case, we’d want to gloss over the details until he reaches his home office:

As soon as John arrived home, he grabbed a soda and headed for his home office.  It was going to be a long night of working on the taxes and he wanted to get an early start. But as soon as he turned the machine on, he knew something was wrong.

At this point, the computer may start talking to him, or a terrifying message pops up, or he receives a threatening email.

In a mainstream novel or a romance, John may discover that his wife has left him. In this case, we might have a few more details downstairs:

He noticed that Sarah hadn’t washed the breakfast dishes as she usually did. But he didn’t think much of it till he saw the envelope lying on the top of his laptop.

                                                                         dear john

Or perhaps he notices that some drawers are open downstairs, but it’s not till he gets to his upstairs office that he realizes there is a burglar in the house.

Such seemingly basic details as logistics can make a big difference to the readability—and success-- of your novel.

Tomorrow we’ll look at a biggie: how to handle strong emotions in fiction.


  1. I've been off the grid for 10 days or so, so had the privilege of reading all the missed entries in one sitting. I must say, I admire your stamina, and each of these has been revealing and rewarding. Can't wait for the next one!

  2. Great advice! I've certainly been guilty of writing all the boring details in a first draft and then going back to trim out what isn't important - when I get bored, I know my readers will be too!

  3. Excellent comment, Victoria. To me, not boring myself is one of the prime rules of revision.