It seems obvious, but writers do it anyway. They leave boring bits in.
Read a book that became a film—it has to be one of those “faithful” adaptations—and then watch the movie. You’ll notice only about 10 percent of the book is on screen. The film is essentially the novel in bullet points. The most important bits, in other words.
If your beta readers say your story (or non-fiction narrative) has good parts and a good concept but put them to sleep anyway, don’t chuck the whole thing; cut the boring bits. If you aren’t sure what’s boring, start here [you know these are weighty concepts because I capitalized each word. I’m all about gravitas, which sounds even cooler if you roll the r]:
1. The Expository Beginning
The Expository Beginning is a writer letting you know a story is about to start. For example, I could have begun this post with:
Welcome back and thank you for continuing to support this blog. We’ve talked about many writing concepts in the past, as you know, and today will be addressing something that I’ve seen crop up all too often recently. Whether you are a beginner or have been at the writing game for a few years, it’s possible to fall into the trap of…
**CLUNK! (face hitting desk from sudden-onset narcolepsy)**
Stories, narrative non-fiction, and essays do not require a pre-game show. They should start with the first interesting thing that happens. Notice how fellow blogger and writer Jill Weatherholt begins this essay from earlier today: She doesn’t tell us about the weather, about putting her golf gear in the back of the SUV, or about eating a bowl of Lucky Charms before heading to the links. It starts with her already on the course, already having taken her shot, already having watched the puck go over the glass and into the stands.
Sorry, I know more about hockey than golf. I know this though: She didn’t mean to hook her shot, but she did mean to hook us in, which she does successfully by skipping the exposition. Despite what everybody says, a writer has to use a little exposition here and there. Just not on page one.
2. Explaining What We Already Know From Context
The human brain is a remarkable, if expensive to repair, invention. It can recognize patterns and fill in blanks better than any computer could hope to. Readers, many of whom come equipped with a brain, understand that if chapter 3 ends with Lazlo the Potato Sculptor’s car sliding off the road in a snowstorm and heading toward a tree, and chapter 4 begins with Lazlo in the hospital with his leg in traction, that an ambulance came, that he survived, that he was transported to the ER, that he was treated by a doctor. Unless the ambulance driver and the doctor are suspects in a murder Lazlo is investigating (he specializes in carving a forensic likenesses of victims from a russet potato), we don’t need it. Like Lazlo, a writer should be smart yet bold in cutting away that which is not required to create an artwork.
If someone said your story is dull, look at the spaces between the action and character moments. Does it matter that Carlos, the poor kid from a bad neighborhood who dreams of one-day becoming World Pogo Champion, is brushing his teeth and combing his hair and clipping his nails before he goes to the prom, or can we start with his mom adjusting his tie and gushing over how handsome her Carlito looks? We can surmise he already did the other, boring-to-read stuff.
From the beginning of each scene in your story, go line by line and ask, “Why do I need this sentence?” If you don’t have a good answer, cut it. The first sentence that argues back is the real beginning. Whatever remains after that should drive the plot, build the character, paint a world, reveal your voice, and entertain the reader.