One of my mentors, the wonderful author and teacher Algis Budrys, wrote an article called “Writing to the Point.” It’s one of the most brilliant and pointed articles on writing that I’ve ever seen, and for new authors, it is well worth reading. I was delighted to find recently that Wordfire Press has reprinted it.
In the article, Algis Budrys cautions the writer to “avoid hesitation.” As a new writer, I recall wondering just what he meant. Now that I work as an editor, I see that it is one of the most common problems of many very good young writers.
So what is hesitation, and how can you recognize it?
Most of the time I see it in the opening of a short story or the beginning of a scene. The author wants to start a story, but doesn’t know how. So what do they do? Typically they start writing, searching for an opening.
Now, a story doesn’t begin until you have a) a character, b) in a setting, c) in a significant conflict. It’s important to remember that until you get to that conflict, your story doesn’t even start.
Most new authors sort of recognize this, but still aren’t sure how to open. So perhaps they will begin by telling the reader about the setting. They’ll describe a small town, with a historic church, the old oak in the town square, a historic battlefield nearby, and so on. I’ve seen authors spend twenty pages developing that setting, but eventually they realize that something is wrong. So they begin talking about a character.
Maybe next they’ll describe a character. Let’s call him "Walter." They’ll tell you about his job, his wife, his workplace, his favorite color, his dog and so on. I’ve seen authors go on for another twenty pages describing the character.
Finally, the author will recognize that the story needs to move forward, so they begin telling you about how when Walter was walking through the park one day, he was attacked and nearly killed by a sasquatch. Finally, the story begins!
Everything that happens before that attack is most likely hesitation. It’s probably garbage that needs to be cut. It might be helpful for the author, but the truth is that the setting and the characterization in a story are typically best when what is on the page is merely the tip of an iceberg.
Sometimes an author will introduce hesitation even when they get to the conflict. I’ve seen many authors for example who will make boastful claims about their conflicts in an attempt to hook the reader. For example, the author might say, “On that sunny evening, Walter found himself the victim of the most grisly attack in history!” Whenever you find yourself stretching your claims, reaching for hyperbole, you’re “hesitating,” you’re not moving your story forward.
Moving your story forward is the key. When you look at a scene, ask yourself, “Does this advance the story?”
Anything that sidetracks the tale is probably wasted text. It is usually over-description of a setting or character, but it might be an attempt to wax poetic about emotions. It might be two scenes or even just two sentences describing the same action. For instance, let’s say that you have a romance scene where Walter kisses his girlfriend. You want him to advance his relationship, so you have another kissing scene—but you really only needed one. Those false starts and repetitions are hesitations..
One thing that I watch for are scenes that start out in past-perfect tense: “Walter had always enjoyed his morning walks.” If you open a story or a scene in past-perfect tense (had + verb), I challenge you to find a way to cut out everything that is in past-perfect. That’s a form of hesitation.
Another very common mistake is this: an author repeats things. He might say, “Walter hated dogs,” but then feel that that isn’t interesting or flashy enough, so he’ll say, “He really hated dogs, unless they were barbecued and slathered with plum sauce.” Now, the author relays the same feelings in two sentences: “Walter hated dogs. He really hated them, unless they were barbecued and slathered with plum sauce.” The second sentence is an improvement on the idea, so the first one should probably be removed.
So what do you do to avoid hesitations? First, remember to start your story or your scenes “In medias res,” in the middle of action. Second, as you’re writing, try not to overload the reader with unnecessary information. Third, when you are editing, take a second look at every scene, sentence, every phrase, and see what you can cut.
Please note that my writing camp in St. George, Utah, in November is full, so registration is closed. I still have two workshops going on in Australia and one in Arizona. You can see all my live workshops here.