No, not that kind of blanks – this is a no-guns site. And not the other kind either – I’m a woman after all, past the age where I’d have to worry, long married, and this isn’t that kind of blog anyway. Shooting blanks in a story – this is what I’m talking about.
I’ve been working with a friend who’s writing her first book. Katelyn, nearly twenty-one, close to graduating college, planning her master’s program. She’s brilliant and talented, majoring in economics or something else I would never have considered, and trying her hand at writing a novel on the side – in her spare time. Like so many of us did when we were young, a bit inebriated with all the possibilities, able to stay up writing all night and still function next day at university and at work. She can write, her teachers told her so, my brain confirms her skills. It’s been my pleasure and honor to be trusted to assist her.
But she’s shooting a few blanks in her story. I pointed out a section where her protagonist, Samantha, acquires a secret cache of letters blazing with accusation about boyfriend Hank’s suspected dark behavior. (I’ve changed the actual events here a bit because it’s Katelyn’s story after all. This is not the place for a reveal of her book. But you’ll get the idea.) Thing is, Katelyn left out how Samantha got those letters, and I asked if it would be described later. No, she said, she figured her readers could imagine how it had happened.
This is where I explained that a story is a footbridge across a raging creek but it can’t be a chasm over the Grand Canyon. A writer needn’t put in every single movement or conversation because most of that ordinary stuff bodes closing the book covers, sans reading it. However, certain events must included – sufficient planks to actually get from one edge of a story to the other without swinging precariously over a great nothingness. In other words, how Samantha got those incriminating letters.
Katelyn’s dilemma points out two problems inexperienced writers often suffer. The first is knowing what to include so readers can leap easily, plank to plank, to get into and then out to the other side of the story. The second is having an actual story to tell, not just an accumulation of sketches about captivating characters, but a story, a plot. Problem, conflict, crises, solutions, and final resolution that not only resolves the problem but shows the growth of the main character. Connections between events and characters must be obvious. Holes for the reader to fall into are not part of the real estate.
Katelyn finally understood that knowing how Samantha acquired the letters that pointed out that Hank made a career out of duping wealthy women impacted the story. It wasn’t after all a fairy godmother who plopped the letters onto Samantha’s favorite zebra-striped pillow. To allow readers to depend on their imaginations meant letting them take the story into potentially ridiculous dimensions – fairy-land. Thus a ruined story. Katelyn reworked it to show Samantha’s inventiveness about tracking down the hidden letters, adding another adventurous element to the story. Even Katelyn loves the new passages and recognizes how much breadth they add.
Blanks are fine as long as they’re essentially vapid. Samantha showered and then called her best friend to talk about hair color. Nah, leave it out. But delineating the pivotal clue to understanding the louse who never says he loves her – that’s fundamental. Fill in the blanks so your reader knows how the antagonist attempts to flummox the protagonist’s success, and how much risk the hero will tender to claim the final prize. Remember: it’s not the reader’s job to write the story. It’s yours, Writer.
You’re doing well, Katelyn, blanks filled in nicely.
Photograph of Cantolloc aqueduct near Nasco, Peru, courtesy: Wikimedia commons, Google images