Literary pointillism: Mastering your story’s quiet moments

When I outline, I generally end up with two different kinds of entries in my notebook. The first type of entry is for a highly detailed chapter, usually one where something really big happens, maybe an action scene, or a character death, or some other pivotal turning point in the life of
the story.

The other type of entry looks a lot like this: “MC and other character talk.”

At the time, I don’t think much of it. I’ll figure out exactly what I want said by the time I reach that chapter. But that rarely happens. I write and write and write and then I turn the page in my notebook and staring at me is “MC and other character talk,” or something equally nonspecific.

The tendency in the past was to panic, to do all sorts of stupid things, including trying to add some sort of extra action to that scene, or introduce a new character to spice things up, and even the dumbest thing of all: counting the remaining chapters and freaking out because OMG if this chapter is only like 800 dumbass words then there’s no way I’ll reach my 70K goal and this story will be too short and I should just set it on fire now what’s wrong with me.

Stories need to have pace, they need to ebb and flow. Not every chapter is going to be action-packed sequences with danger at every turn, or sex, or shocking reveals.

When faced with worrisome chapters like this in my 2nd manuscript—five manuscripts ago—I made a decision to try something different. I decided, at least as an exercise, that I wanted to explore setting the scene better, and I wanted to take advantage of the subdued moment to dig deeper into my character. And here’s what I came up with:

On scene setting:

When your characters are being chased, when they’re being killed off, when they’re falling in lust with the new guy or girl, the quickly moving plot doesn’t always leave room to appreciate what’s around them. As a reader, I want to be able to picture the characters and the place.

So when faced with “two meet at coffee shop and chat,” I decided to take this moment to make sure that readers understand place. I used all the senses to engage. This is a way to plant the seed for further appreciation of your world. Later, when your character is being chased down an alley, you can’t exactly pause the chase to describe the alley. “We interrupt this life-threatening situation to describe the crappy light fixtures and smell of pulled pork.” No, that doesn’t work. But if you use the quieter moments to show that alley, to describe the other locations and people, then the reader gets that vision in their head, and later when your character is being chased, the reader will hopefully picture those light fixtures and smell that smell without you having to say it again. That’s when you’ve really done your job.

You can foreshadow the importance of a location just as much as you can foreshadow the importance of a person or event.

At first, it was an exercise. I wrote way way way too much. But it was good. It felt good to do. And there were gems hidden inside the text, so I pulled out what was nice and useful and added it too my scene. The difference can’t be overstated. But that only leads me to the next part, which is how your character reacts to this vivid setting you’ve put them in.

Character profile:

Again, we learn lots about a character by how they react to the truly high-stakes moments of their story. Did they fight or take flight? Did they get angry and leave, or angry and stay to argue? Did they go in for that kiss or did they miss their moment, doomed to a life of solitude and cats and subtweeting FB posts by extended family.

This all, of course, depends on the story yoseurat-pointillismu’re trying to tell and what exactly you want to get across to the reader. But I’ve found these types of things highly informative:

Does your character cross at the light or jaywalk? Do they tip well? Do they get places early or late? Do they say hello to passing strangers? If their food arrives first, do they wait or chow down? Do they shake hands, or pretend not to see the other person extend their hand?

All these seemingly small details paint a vivid picture. Think of it as the artistic technique of pointillism, where a portrait is painted one point, one dot at a time. When you back up to view the whole thing, it’s lush and comprehensive. That’s what using these quiet moments can do. It can turn your work of art into a masterpiece.

How you do this is an individual decision, and there is absolutely no right or wrong way, so don’t let anyone tell you you’re doing it wrong. My first drafts need this pointillism. I think it’s because I write first person present tense. I think it’s because I act out lines of dialogue and generally take on the mood and characteristics of my MC when I’m writing. To embody the character, for me, I can’t come back to these details later. I need them there from Day 1.

But lots of brilliant writers I know do it the opposite. They get their plot down, they connect their plot dots then go back for the really in-depth character and setting stuff. Again, no right or wrong. Find the method that pulls the best writing from your head onto the page, and run with it.

It’s very common now that my favorite chapters to write are the most boring ones to outline.

Thanks for reading.

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