The Writer's Writing Guide: Compression

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This is a variation on the problem of transition. You realize you need transitions to link scenes together, but you also believe in the basic writing rule of Show, Don't Tell. As a result, you end up with all your transitions as full-blown scenes.

Let's say we're writing about a man who has just had a fight with his boss at work. In the next scene, he will be taking the boss' daughter out to dinner on a date. A writer suffering from lack of compression will show the man getting home from work, getting ready for his date, maybe horsing around with his roommate, maybe calling his brother to tell about the incident at work, then driving to his date's apartment, and walking up to her door. A writer who knows how to compress will end the scene at work and immediately (maybe after a space break, or the words, "Five hours later" or some such) have the guy knocking at his date's door. (Or, a very deft writer will skip the knocking at the door entirely, and begin the date scene at the restaurant, after they've already sat down to dinner.) The only reason you would need all those transitional scenes is if they will come in useful in terms of narrative, character development, or theme. If they are there only as transitions, or as flavor, or as repetitions of narrative, character, or thematic information we already know, cut them. (For more on this, see chapter on Scene.)

Think about movies, and how, if they're good, they begin every scene as far into the scene as possible.

To get around lack of compression, look closely at your text and ask yourself why each sentence, paragraph, and section is there. If the only reason it's there is to give you a transition, then cut it and in its place use a transition instead. My rule of thumb is that every scene should do at least double duty — not only move the story along (narrative), and deepen our understanding of character or theme. So in the above example of the guy and his boss, we could keep the part about what he does between the fight and the restaurant — but only if it gives us new insight into her, and/or complicates the plot.

You compress through a variety of means. One possibility is using quick, single word transitions: "Later," "Then." Another is to use dependent clauses: "Since that day, she hadn't stopped at the drugstore once." "Once I knew that about him, I couldn't leave him alone." Still another is to push your transitional scene into a sentence: "He fretted over the incident the whole way home, hurling his cigarettes out the car window, banging the steering wheel in a rage, but by the time he'd pulled up to Monica's house, he had worked out, showered, and combed himself into a calmer state of mind."

The key is to realize that all time is not equal. Some time deserves to be drawn out and lingered over. Some time should be swept away quickly. Another way of thinking of it is that time is elastic in writing, and it is up to the writer to decide what deserves a scene and what should be dispensed with swiftly. The journey of writing itself is important, but on the page, your character's journey — from the sofa to the kitchen, or the dorm to the classroom — may be tedious. Jump when you can. Just find a way to do it that reads smoothly and, if you're really pushing yourself, is also written creatively. Previous chapter      Next chapter      Table of contents

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