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Getting to the Point with Tom Cruise

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I love my mom more than anything, but she sucks at getting to the point of stories. Case in point: I was talking with her the other day about an '80s Tom Cruise movie she'd watched on TV. She started outlining the plot, taking time to remember details like the name of Tom Cruise's girlfriend and the reason he was at the grocery store when X event happened. It was taking a while, so being an annoyingly impatient teenager, I asked:

Me: Mom, what's your point?
Her: Well - it's just that Tom Cruise was a good actor!
Me: ...Oh.

That little exchange made me smile - and it made me think of the importance of "getting to the point" when it comes to writing. O' course, novels are longer than movie summaries! Still, the concept felt relevant. Here are three mistakes that can stop you from getting the point - and can therefore lead to reader impatience and that anticlimactic "...oh" moment. Avoid them, and you're in the clear!

1. Including "extras"
This is something we've all been taught - don't include it unless it matters. But sometimes, our own deep involvement in our story makes certain "extras" slip by. Whether it's a flashback, a run-down of a new character, or a whole scene, every part of a book should be evaluated: does this matter? Would it better fit under an "extras" tab on my future author website? Does it push the story forward?

When you're writing a first draft and aren't yet sure exactly which story you're trying to push forward, it can be especially tough to do this. That's why having an idea, if not a set-in-stone picture, of what you want your end product to be can be so handy. Of course, that's what first drafts are for - getting it all down on paper and evaluating it once revision time comes around. Yay!

2. Detail detouring
When it works, detail works. It makes the reader connect with a character. It makes a scene that much more visceral. It makes the reader laugh and squirm. But details are kind of like candy, too - when there's too much of it, the reader feels bloated, tired and slowed down.
Oh, Tom, you highly ka-powful man.

While my mom was carefully recounting the plot of that Tom Cruise movie, I was fidgeting, and I couldn't help but want to pluck out all those details that didn't feel relevant. Often, a too-slow pace is really the result of too many detail detours. So during a snappy argument between two characters, consider whether that sentence explaining why Character 1 was at the grocery store in the first place is really necessary - you might find deleting it adds ka-pow to the argument's snap. (Ka-pow!)

3. Including something that seems important but really isn't in the end
Here's where you risk disappointing the reader and retrospectively causing that "...oh" moment. While reading, we tend to collect everything as important and part of a larger picture. I mean, just the fact that it's on the page injects it with this gravity, this sense of buildup.

So when a main character spends a page telling us how they're scared of puppies (what!), they should have to actually face that fear at some point. If not, we think back to that page and think "...oh" - or, if we don't quite remember it by the end, we feel strangely unfulfilled. Wasn't there something about puppies...?

The flipside to all three of these mistakes is that when they're avoided, they create a story that is so swift, slick and engrossing, it's nearly impossible to stop reading. And at the end, everything ties together so well that the reader will bask in your genius! What are your techniques for getting to the point? Have a ka-powful day, everyone!
Emilia Plater

Emilia is a YA author who avoids studying, food that isn't covered in cheese, and waking up before 10:30AM whenever possible. A bundle of confusions.

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9 comments:

  1. Great post! And I love the Tom Cruise analogy:)

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  2. Tom Cruise: droppin science on fools since 1980 something.

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  3. LOL, this post was TOO awesome! I agree with you--just get your story down first and then see what you can hack away later. :)

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  4. "Wasn't there something about puppies?" -- me after finishing every book no matter what.

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  5. Great post! I always have all of those things in abundance in first drafts. (And sometimes second drafts too....)

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  6. Thanks for the awesome comments, guys! Sarah - I think our minds are in the puppy gutter :D

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  7. I'm sure that taking the long way to get to the point is a Mom thing. Or more like an age thing. Something I'll do when I'm my Mom's age too even though I want to say, "hurry it up already Mom!" :)

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  8. Such great points! And I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to say "What's your point mom?". :)
    Lisa ~ YA Literature Lover

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  9. I once read part of my MS to a group of friends and realized as I was reading it just how bogged down in details it really was. While I had excused myself for any literary failures as it was just a rough draft, one friend still picked up on my overly detailed prose and continued to harass me for days. Whenever we saw something uninteresting (such as a street sign on one occasion), he'd describe it in excess detail. I wanted to kick him. I might have actually done it. I don't recall--suppressed memories and all that.

    What was my point again?

    Oh yeah--to say that this post is awesome. And if for no other reason, excess detail should be avoided so as to protect oneself from ridicule. ;)

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Item Reviewed: Getting to the Point with Tom Cruise Rating: 5 Reviewed By: Emilia Plater