Saturday 28 April 2012

You Can’t Just Leave Out The Boring Parts

It would be very convenient if, when people pointed out parts of your story that weren’t very interesting, if you could just cut them out.

Snip-snip, and there you go, perfect book.

Unfortunately, you can’t always do that. 

Those parts that are most likely to bore readers — backstory, long descriptions, exposition, info dumps, tangential subplots, world building — often serve an important function. If you just take them out, the story will probably still make sense, but it might feel a bit bland or simplistic.
While it’s pretty easy for people to spot sections of prose that aren’t very engaging, it isn’t so simple knowing what to do about it. Similarly, books on the craft will tell you what not to do, what to avoid, what readers don’t like; but what they are less likely to tell you is what to replace it with.

‘Mistakes’ have become so standardised that it can get to the point that as soon as the person reading detects you are slipping into erroneous writing they will immediately instruct you to remove it. Because 9 out of 10 agents cite it as their number one hate. Or that it is a well known fact that readers won't stand for it.

And you may well agree. So much so that you also become a zealot, and pass on this wisdom to other writers.

Certainly, when a section of prose is identified as boring, for whatever reason, the probability of that assessment being correct is very high. And the kinds of writing that are most likely to be considered boring are generally backstory, exposition, etc., etc. But make no mistake, all those elements are a necessary part of pretty much every story.

Here are some tips for how to make the necessary bits less painful:

Often the problem isn’t that you should get rid of the offending section, it may be that you just need to move it. Backstory at the start of a story is tedious. Halfway in when you love the character, it becomes precious insight.

Easily the most common time for dull writing to occur is when the character is on their own. Easily. Put the character somewhere else, somewhere with other people in it, and that can fix your problem like magic.

Trying to sort stuff out on the phone is easily the second most common time for dull writing to occur. Keep it to a minimum.

Short and quick will get you out of many bogged down situations. If you can convey the information you need to impart in concise fashion, nobody really cares whether it’s boring or not. You don’t have to find a mirror for your MC to look into in order to describe what they look like. If you mention they’re tall and ginger and get on with it, job done. Readers have read enough books to be able to roll with it.

Info-dump that tells you entertaining information isn’t info-dump. Readers like to learn things. Even if it’s made up nonsense. But bear in mind, telling people what they already know is never entertaining.

Exposition is a skill. Any pertinent piece of information can be conveyed to the reader without them realising it. In many different ways. But the easiest way — just having someone state it out loud for no particular reason — isn’t one of them.

Clunky exposition is often due to the writer trying to get everything across immediately. It’s not necessary to explain every angle all at once, especially if it’s a complicated situation. A little more time allows for emotions, personalities, desires and conversations to create a more natural environment for important details to emerge in.
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Patricia JL said...

Great advice on how to easily make boring parts entertain better.

Mary Mary said...

Backstory is such a tricky thing, but I think you give some great pointers on how it should work and how to make it work well.

k~ said...

Love the information... one of my favorite editors, loves to rearrange things.

Kimm Walker said...


mooderino said...


@mary-trying to make it less obvious and clunky is key part of learning how to tell a story, I think.

@November-often a quick shuffle does the trick.

Debra Dunbar said...

Nice post!
I've tried to use dialog to convey info, although I have to make sure there's give and take, and not just another way to info dump.

I love when a writer sprinkles back story in throughout the book rather than just giving it to me in a chunk. Makes me curious. Makes me want to keep reading!

Catherine Stine said...

Good point! I tend to write the less exciting parts out in exposition and flesh out the more key parts in scene with dialog.

Stacy Bennett said...

So incredibly timely and helpful as I'm knee deep in an edit that turned into a rewrite of.. a "boring" part. Thanks so much. Great advice.

Kelly Barnes said...

"It’s not necessary to explain every angle all at once,"

That's key for me. Patience being what it is and all.

mooderino said...

@debra-I think it's a lot like music. Composition requires mixing and balnace, and solos only at the right time.

@Catherine-just looking it over wiht an eye to making it better is already a step forward.

@Rowan-glad to be of help.

@Kelly-the rush to deliver a full picture often backfires.

Jay Noel said...

I'm not a big fan of the info. dump all in one place. I want to care first, then go back and learn more about a character so I can put all the pieces together.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Thanks for writing this Moody. I recently got feedback that told me a section of my story was boring. But it was really necessary to understand what was going on. So I feel more comfortable with the fact that it's boring. Maybe I'm counting on people who are reading to be into the character enough to take an interest.

Annalisa Crawford said...

I'm currently reading a book where my main bugbear is the amount of info-dumping. I can see why it needs to be done, but it almost feels like the info is being relayed to the wrong character. One line, which wasn't even important was: "You'll know Character X, of course, because we were both instrumental in engaging his services two years ago." Or words to that effect.

It jumped off the page that two characters that new what was going on where explaining it to each other.

Donna McDine said...

Sound advice to spruce it up. Love the photo!

rena traxel said...

I like backstory if it''s done the right way and not given to me in one big chunk.

Craig Edwards said...

The one exception to this in writing is William Goldman - whose The Princess Bride is just a "good parts" telling of that story. But then, William Goldman is also the ONLY screenwriter in film history to be allowed to work in his own script format too. That guy is amazing. Great post!

mooderino said...

@Jay-I've read books where the infodump (maybe some historical background) is fascinating. It has to be worthwhile, and often it's just factual.

@Michael-assuming you've already got them to like your character (through all the cool things he's done) then I think most readers won't mind.

@Annalisa-any form of writing executed poorly will be annoying.

@Donna-I spend more time looking for pictures than actually writing the posts.

@Rena-I think it can even work as a chunk if it's interesting enough.

@Craig-leaving out fake exposition is always a good idea.

September Lynn Gray said...

I don't think any part of a story really has to be boring. It's all in how it's told. When I was writing my latest story, the characters history was absolutely essential to showing who the character was. I sprinkled bits and pieces throughout the story. The characters early years actually became one of the most interesting aspects of the story.

mooderino said...

@September-no part of the story should be boring, but removing those parts isn't the answer (especially when they serve a purpose). Learning how to convey the information more interestingly is the key.

Kate Larkindale said...

I always find moving things around helps with slow patches. But then, if it's not REALLY necessary, sometimes a quick snip is the most painless way to fix the problem.

mooderino said...

@Kate-when it's unnecessary you can certainly snip it out, but important information is easy to make interesting. It just takes effort.

Lorena said...

Great tips! Thank you.

Anonymous said...

"Easily the most common time for dull writing to occur is when the character is on their own." SO TRUE! My early work suffered from a lack of what my friend calls "reflection scenes." I started adding a little more reflection, just to catch up those who may be less immersed in the story, but by the fourth time I go through the manuscript, I'm deleting a lot of it because it's becoming so repetitive. If I can't stomach it on the fourth read, out it goes. Sometimes just removing the last sentence from the paragraphs in the slow spot is all that's needed.

Laura Pauling said...

Writing exposition is one of the hardest skills to learn but it can't be ignored. Some of the best novels start with exciting narration and it continues throughout the novel.

mooderino said...

@Lorena - (belated) thanks.

@Dalya - i think that's true, often the changes you need to make aren't massive.

@Laura - I think it's necessary in all stories. Once you're in the flow though, you don't really notice it.

Anonymous said...

You make some very good points.
I am currently struggling in my story with having too many phone conversations, too much useless exposition, and too much time taken up by people talking, without very much action or plot.
I do have to say that I had trouble reading this article, as the pale gray on brown wood texture background is almost impossible to read without dragging over all of it to change the colors, and causes a headache to look at either way. I want to come back to your site again to read your articles, but for now my eyes just can't handle it. As an amateur graphic designer, I would suggest putting the text on a simple, untextured background and making the text color darker than the background color.
It also helps to make your background not so busy that it distracts from the foreground.


mooderino said...

@Beka-the text is all on white background, what you're describing is probably the page not loading properly. Hope you come back.

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