"I had the most exciting day yesterday. Steven proposed!"
"Ooh," Maggie squealed. "Tell me all about it."
Cathy stuck out her hand, showing Maggie a flashing ring. "Well, I woke up when my alarm went off at 6:30, like it always does," she said. "I pushed back my favorite green fluffy quilt from childhood that my Aunt Mary repaired and surprised me with last summer. The quilt always makes me smile because it reminds me of our family's Christmas celebrations at my childhood home in Minnesota." Cathy's brown eyes went dreamy for a moment. Then she continued.
"I got up and looked out the window to see a blue Ford drive past the red brick apartment building across the street where my best friend Judith lives. The car honked as it went by. The sun was in my eyes so I reached over to pull the shades closed, and then I put on my fluffy orange slippers and walked into the bathroom. The pink tile looked a little grey, and I wondered if I made the right choice with this color when I retiled the bathroom two months ago."
The rock on Cathy's finger caught the sun and glistened. "I turned on the shower and listened to the water run as I brushed my teeth. I studied my face in the mirror. My brown eyes seemed sad. When the water was warm I got into the shower and turned around in the water to get my long brown hair wet. The water felt like warm spikes on my skin. Then I noticed on the shower shelf that there was a new bottle of shampoo on the shelf. 'Oh yes,' I thought, 'I remember changing that yesterday.' It was a new brand and I wanted to try it..."
This conversation seems silly, doesn't it? Maggie doesn't want to hear this irrelevant chitter; she wants to get to the meat of Steven's proposal.
Although it's hard to imagine a conversation like this happening in real life, unfortunately many writers litter their chapters with this type of inconsequential detail that pumps word count but doesn't go anywhere. While this vignette DOES give us a feel for Cathy's life -- she's living in a city environment, far from home, and she has either time, money or both to retile the bathroom -- we're left wondering: Do we care?
Step-by-step writing (SBS), in which the writer describes every step, no matter how trivial, on the way to complete an action, or every detail on the way to describe the setting, is an easy trap for you to fall into. You are imagining the scene vividly in your head, and simply writing what you see. The problem with this type of writing, if not edited and boiled down, is that it's, frankly, boring.
In fiction, unlike in life, the words must always push ahead without dead space. You, the writer, must incorporate many pieces of information -- story, character flaws, descriptions, and even morals from which the reader can learn a lesson -- in a way that is compelling and doesn't feel forced.
In the example above, the first three sentences establish the promise of an interesting story, and Maggie is poised to learn more until Cathy goes into SBS mode. Cathy would have done better by cutting to the chase. Any more of this and your reader will close your book faster than you can say "page 2."
You avoid SBS by incorporating a forward direction at all times to your story action. Don't include extraneous details; only put in what is necessary to understand the story. For example, no one cares that a character is opening a bottle of water. However, if your character has only a few seconds to sneak a sip and calm her cough before giving a speech, the question of whether she can get that bottle open in time becomes pressing.
YOU MAKE THE READER CARE BY HAVING AT ALL TIMES AT LEAST ONE UNCERTAINTY FOR WHICH THE READER WANTS TO KNOW MORE.
There are at least four good techniques to create tension and thereby avoid SBS:
Technique #1: Intrigue
New unexpected plot twists or provocative information add valuable sweet spots throughout your text. These prick the reader's curiosity and cause her to want to know more.
Intrigue is also a fabulous technique with which to start your story. Since your reader is not yet bonded to any of your characters or events (unless this is a continuation of a series), intrigue will draw in the reader at the start without her needing to understand your story's background.
Here are some examples of possible opening lines:
He hadn't thought dying would be like this.
Sadie didn't know it at the time, but Brandon's entering through the side window, rather than the door, would change her life.
The pin cushion was from the nineteenth century, delicate brocade caught up in a flirty twist at the top.
These lines all have in common the attribute of raising questions or curiosity in the reader.
Depending on how strong is your hook, after the opening line you may even be able to switch topic for several paragraphs before returning to the opening issue. The reader remains riveted through the routine because the opening line has made her curious about the situation or what will happen.
Technique #2: Write in Deep POV
Point of View (POV) is a challenging topic that takes more time than I can cover in this short article. Suffice it to say that many writers write in objective POV without realizing it.
(Objective): Jenny and Paul sat across from each other at the table in the corner of the ice cream parlor. She was nervous because Paul was so charming, and she didn't want to say anything wrong. Jenny twirled the long silver spoon in her hand. After a moment she noticed her chocolate ice cream was melting, so she neatly took a large bite of the icy treat. It suddenly triggered a transient trigeminal spasm, and she grimaced.
(Deep): At the corner table of the Double Dip Jenny caught Paul's wink, and she felt those familiar butterflies. Darn it, why did she keep falling apart like this? She dug her spoon into her ice cream so Paul wouldn't see that he unnerved her -- and shuddered a moment after the ice cream went down. She waited for the headache to pass, trying not to notice that Paul was staring at her.
The objective POV example describes what a camera would describe, and uses words at a distance from the characters. We are told Jenny is nervous instead of being shown actions that would allow us to conclude this. This passage uses objective words that Jenny would never say herself while living this scene: "took a large bite." and "icy treat."
The deep POV example focuses on Jenny's reaction to Paul, rather than the mechanics of eating ice cream. The passage uses Jenny's direct thoughts: "familiar butterflies" and "Darn it." The rest of the description notices what Jenny is noticing. For example, unless she's a medical student she would never think, "Gee, that ice cream just triggered a trigeminal spasm, so I'm grimacing."
Two excellent instructional books for POV are: Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and Rivet Your Readers with Deep Point of View by Jill Nelson.
Technique #3: Ticking Clock
A ticking clock is a great way to increase tension. Your character must do something, or avoid something, before a fast-approaching deadline arrives.
Technique #4: Set a Story Goal
This is a basic trick for creating story conflict. In order to be engaged, your reader needs to know for what she will be watching, and this is best done by stating a clear story goal before the scene unfolds.
The goal statement must be a clear sentence that can be answered with a "yes" or "no." Here are some examples of a story goal that can be the first line of your new chapter:
Susan had five minutes to find the necklace before Richard returned to the room.
Timmy didn't know if he'd be able to convince his mom that he'd just seen his dad's ghost -- but he'd have to try.
Claire gasped as she saw William was no longer in the car. He must have run away. She had to find him before his medicine ran out.
Follow your goal statement by going into the conflict phase of the scene, where your viewpoint character deals with a series of internal and external obstacles.
Finish with an effective ending: either a YES BUT or a NO AND FURTHERMORE. You can read more about designing a scene in Jack Bickham's Scene and Structure and my own book, Amy Deardon's The Story Template.
SBS writing is a helpful stage for the writer, because it teaches you to notice detail rather than skipping through a scene too quickly. However, adding the forward arrow helps your writing become compelling and fascinating. Try it.