Monday 2 July 2018

Do not interrupt.

One of the notices I have on the wall above my laptop says:


It's not a message aimed at the writer's usual domestic distractors – pets, spouses, children, chores – but at myself.

Because the truth is, it is not the outside world but my own weak will that is the greatest barrier to good wordage.

I am not even talking about the internet, Facebook and obsessive inbox checking.

I am talking about interrupting story. My own story.

Something is happening in the story. It's compelling, exciting. The reader is transfixed. As the something happens, a character is triggered to remember something else. The Something Else is relevant to the something actually happening on stage. The Something Else explains stuff about the main something. Sometimes the Something Else triggers another something else that triggers yet another something else.

Only when all is explained does the story circle back to deliver the pay-off promised by the first something.

By that time, the reader's mind has already wandered to whether or not to put another load in the washing machine.

We novel writers do this self interrupting all the time in our first drafts, when we are still trying to figure out our stories. The interruptions are us explaining our stories to ourselves. But this sort of jumping around has no place in the final draft.

Go on, re-read the first chapter of your manuscript. Are you cutting away to explain tiny bits of background? Then you have work to do.

The screenwriting guru Robert McKee defines story structure thus:

STRUCTURE is a selection of events from the characters' life stories that is composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.
Admittedly, the first time I read that dense sentence – which was before I'd ever written a novel –  it compelled me to go and put another load into the washing machine.

I only appreciated McKee's meaning after I had experienced the labyrinthine problem-solving involved in novel writing.


... meaning, don't include events that only serve to bore your reader.

My favourite explanation of this comes from Kathleen Duey, author of the astonishing Resurrection of Magic books. Duey says writing a scene is like shining a spotlight on a stage. The world of you story is all there, on the platform, but you, the author, chooses what the reader should know, at every single moment.

So interrupting your story is akin to the spotlight going dark on the hero and an extra four or five spotlights suddenly picking out actors on different parts of the stage, performing scenes from different parts of the story.

It is harder to avoid this than it sounds. When I was beginning to write novels, I was constantly trying to explain background, afraid that the lack of information will drive the reader away. It took nerve to accept that it is this lack that keeps the reader reading.

Says the author Pat Conroy (Prince of Tides): '... I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food or drink because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.'

But we can't help being driven to explain our story – in big, clumpy info-dumps and in tiny darting asides. The craft of writing a novel that can possess a reader, that can create that thirst to know what happens next is to know when and how to reveal this information.


Have you ever verbally told a story to a friends, then realised it would get a better reaction if you set it up a little bit better, and interrupted yourself saying, 'Oh wait, before I tell you that, I have to tell you this!'

This is why we interrupt ourselves.

We realise that the story would be better told – nay, better experienced by the audience – by laying more groundwork.

This is what we are doing when we interrupt a scene to cut away to some information.

But unlike a story told in conversation, we novelists don't have to interrupt ourselves. We have time to take that nugget out and put it where it belongs.

When critiquing opening chapters and I suggest to a fellow writer that cut-away information should be separated out and written up properly as a scene, the suggestion is often met with resistance.

The most common reason to resist is that the opening chapter is an explosion – it has been written specifically to hook the reader. The writer is only following advice to be found in countless places on the internet and in writing books. So if they insert a set up chapter before their exploding chapter, wouldn't they be missing the chance to hook the reader?

I think this misunderstands the idea behind hooking a reader.

What hooks the reader? Emotion.

An explosion can do it, causing fear, excitement, the desire to find out why ... but re-read your work carefully. Explosions can be humdrum too. Like the ones that come at the end of every superhero movie, the ones that you don't have to watch because you've seen it before.

So hooking the reader is about strategy. About finding the emotion that will keep him turning the pages. Sometimes, that emotion can be had without an explosion.


The first time you write your novel,your only strategy is getting to The End.

But once you've got it down, and you have time to examine the scenes you chose to lay down on paper, your strategy should shift from satisfying your own need to tell the story to mapping your reader's emotional experience of your book.

Revising with our reader's emotional arc in mind is a good way to weed out those tiny interruptions that we all seed into our chapters.

I wrote about it in detail back in 2016: Exposition: it's about emotion not information – in which I quote film editor Tony Zhou:

"Emotions take time ... Editors have to decide how much time to give an emotion."

Actually, Tony was talking about character emotions. But when you're revising your manuscript and strategising about how much time to give a scene on stage, spare a thought for the reader.

If you keep cutting away to fill in information, you are dampening the emotional impact of your scene.

And no, don't just cut it out. You put it in because you knew it was necessary. Now you need to craft a place for it in your narrative. This is not a nuisance but an opportunity to deepen and enrich your story.

Good luck.

Candy will be joining Lisa Williamson (The Art of Being Normal) and her editor Bella Pearson in a discussion of Writing Other Lives on 3 July 2018. Book your place here. Candy's third novel Bone Talk will be published in August. Find out more.


  1. A thoroughly useful piece on an essential strategy. Not easy to do, though!
    Thank you, Candy.

    1. Thanks, KM Lockwood. Yes, not easy to do. But writing a novel is hard anyway!

  2. Thanks, Candy. My only strategy at the moment, as you say, is getting to The End. I'm really enjoying this first draft but I'm also really looking forward to sorting out the reader's emotional journey on subsequent drafts. Gutted I can't come to the event with you and Lisa Williamson and Bella Pearson tomorrow. I'd love to hear about it.

    1. Yes, don't worry about this just yet. You have to write EVERYTHING down for the first draft so that you can see your world clearly. This is not the time to worry too much
      about the reader!

  3. I LOVE putting the emotion in. I even draw emoticons on my drafts that reflect the emotional beats and I LOVE escalating the emotions too. It's the fun part for me.

    1. Sometimes one can get so caught up with the domestic detail that we forget that it's all about emotion!

  4. A rather brilliant analysis, Candy. I am going to read it a few times so I don't miss anything!


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