I began the Christian Fiction Writers’ Clinic as a means for sharing what I’ve gleaned over the years concerning content editing. I learn best by example and like to use memorable rules to help myself remember how to avoid particular pitfalls that I’ve read in books or that have been exposed in my own writing. For years the rules have been hidden in a shared document between myself and Dana Kamstra.
These “rules,” while being helpful, can be ignored if the author desires. I never want to set something up as an unbreakable rule. I certainly have not invented the art of fiction writing. However, each of the rules are meant to be guidelines to help you stay away from troublesome areas.
You’ll find a live video within the Facebook Clinic group discussing this writing rule.
Too much needless information;
Taking too long to get to the point;
Characters kept doing the same thing;
Plot isn’t exciting enough
This is really going to piggyback off of last month’s discussion. So much so that you might be wondering why it’s a separate rule. The answer is simple: The Kill Your Darling rule encompassed an endless number of things while Jumping Off the Swing is going to dig deeper into one specific area. And you’ll find that a lot of these rules tend to overlap in areas.
Last month, we talked about areas that could drag our story down, and among that long list was Daily Details. But before we dig into anything, let’s pause and think like a reader. Do you remember reading a story where the scenes started too early? We watched the character get dressed for the day, eat breakfast, and drive to work, but there was nothing happening. Nothing until after her lunch break. THEN the action started.
Or maybe it was just the opposite and the scene lingered too long and we watched the character unwind for the night. They drove home, ate dinner, cleaned up, changed clothes, and watched tv but nothing of importance was happening.
If you can conjure up a memory of reading a book with scenes like this, you can likely relate to our symptom list. It’s important that you relate to the symptom list because sometimes we forget to think like a reader. We put things into the novel that felt important to us, but meanwhile the reader is rattling off this list of symptoms to their reading buddy. If we can remember what it feels like as a reader, we’ll be more alert and less willing to follow the same patterns as an author.
Jumping off the swing is the fastest way to get off the swing. So what this rule symbolizes is the fastest way in and out of a scene. But just like a real swing, jumping on or off isn’t always safe. So let’s look at when you should and when you should not “jump off the swing.”
It is NOT possible to cut out all “boring” parts of a book. We really do need to see characters at work and with their family. We do need to see them doing everyday activities, but in reality, everyday activities takes up a rather large portion of our day. If we wrote a novel to include ALL of them, it’d grow rather long and tedious. You’d find a lot of repetitive information in there.
For example: If you mentioned your character brushing their teeth every day and your book included 30 days of their life, you would mention them brushing their teeth 30 times, 60 times if they brushed at night too, and 90 times if they brushed after lunch.
Thankfully, I haven’t read a book where this was a problem but in this example you can see how quickly it would escalate.
There are two ways to get on and off of a swing:
- Start in a stopping position and slowly wind up … then wind down and calmly get off.
- Jump onto a moving swing … and then jump off of a moving swing.
As you look at how to start and stop a scene, you can see both at play.
Winding up would look like starting before the action and working your way up to it. And winding down would be showing things that happened after the action.
Jumping on would be starting right at the point of action. And jumping off is ending the scene immediately after the action.
You actually need both in your novel. If we only showed the high tension moments, the reader has no moment to breathe and you’re likely to run into a problem with your characters lacking depth.
And if we always wound up and wound down every scene, it would grow rather tedious. So a good novel would need a mixture of these elements.
So what this rule does is it gives the author permission to jump on or off the swing.
I think it’s natural for new writers to wind up and wind down their scenes. This is how we approach our daily lives so it only makes sense to write about our characters in the same way. If this is you, if you feel like you must start in the morning and you must continue until the end of the night, then you formally have permission to jump on or off your swing.
Leap into the middle of the moment. If the action starts when her co-worker spills coffee on her new dress, then open the chapter RIGHT there. Take a minute to visualize the difference between the two scenes:
- She woke up, took a shower, put on her new white dress, drove to work, stopped for coffee along the way, met with her boss, started in on her tasks, then at 10:05 am, she walked out of her cubicle and Sally May ran right into her splashing, thankfully cold, coffee all over her new dress. “Sally May!” she sputtered…
- Splash. The sound met her ears seconds before the cold liquid soaked through to her skin. She choked on a gasp and peered down at the dark stain spreading out across the bodice of her white dress. “Sally May!” she sputtered …
See how jumping straight into the moment was a heap more interesting than reading about the mundane things that didn’t add anything to the story? And in my example, I summarized the mundane things and didn’t use whole sentences to show them happening. Imagine how much longer and more boring that would have been!
So if jumping into the action is so much more interesting, is it always wrong to wind up into a scene?
Nope! Not at all. Sometimes it’s even necessary.
The reader still needs to feel connected to the character. And if we only did high action moments, we miss the gentle way the characters connect on a deeper level with the readers.
So in our example above, if we added depth to the morning ritual scene, we could see how it is now useful and even necessary. Try this out:
This was it. The day she had been waiting her whole life for. She thumbed through her closet for the thousandth time. What could she wear that would say she was responsible and ready for the promotion while also saying that she was a young vibrant woman ready to be swept off her feet?
She thumbed past the eggplant mistake she had bought last fall and spied the simple elegance of the knee-length white dress. The modesty gave it a professional air while the ruffled bottom hem gave it the soft romantic look. Pulling it out, she looked over her shoulder at the antique clock across the room. Dashing out of the closet and into the bathroom, she was about to be late for the most important day of her life.
She sucked in a calming breath and let it out slowly. With enough time to spare for coffee, she was finally ready. Slipping on the only splash of color she wore, she grinned down at the hot pink heels. There was no better accessory to wear for the best day of her life.
She drummed on her desk hours later. Only two hours from her blind date and four hours from her meeting. Was she crazy to meet with both of them in the same afternoon?
She hit the print button on her document and pushed away from her desk. She stepped out of her cuticle.
SPLASH. The sound met her ears seconds before the cold liquid soaked through to her skin. She choked on a gasp and peered down at the dark stain spreading out across the bodice of her white dress. “Sally May!” she sputtered …
Now, I confess this was an unedited piece of fluff but hopefully it got the point across. You can, and sometimes, DO need to show the slower points of the character’s day but when you do there needs to be a purpose behind it. In the latest example, we’re not turning off the character’s experiences and desires but allowing them to weigh heavily on her mind as she went about her routine. What she wore that day mattered. And using the lead-in, we were more invested in her story because we better understood what was at stake. It wasn’t just a new dress, but it was also two very important meetings.
Now, if we were reading the whole story, we might have already known about the meetings. So, again, there’s a time to jump straight in and a time to wind up.
The key is to make sure your wind up scenes carry weight. They should be reflecting on what is most important to the character.
What are their fears? Their desires?
How does their emotional rollercoaster color their behavior while doing simple daily tasks?
Are they distracted? Are they a ball of nervous energy? Are they dragging?
And the same concept is said for winding down a scene. Sometimes, it’s best to end at the height of the moment. There are those who swear by ending the chapter at the start of “the fire” then opening the next chapter emersed in the moment. This way, your winding down scenes fall in the middle of your chapters. The idea is that many readers will use chapter breaks as stopping points. So if you end your chapter on a high note, they’ll stay up later to read the next chapter. But if you’re winding up at the start of every chapter and winding down at the end of every chapter, it’s easier to take a break in between chapters. It may not always be feasible to structure your chapters this way. We see this more often in genres where mystery or suspense are higher.
BUT the thing we need to focus on here isn’t whether you put your winding down scenes in the middle of a chapter or at the end of a chapter, but what you actually DO with those scenes. Because if you wind down your high tension moments with a bunch of meaningless activity, it’ll still bore the reader no matter where it’s positioned. So the key is to do the same thing we talked about earlier: Make it count! Use those quiet moments for the character to reflect on their fears and desires. At no point should the character simply take off their drama as if they took off their shoes at the end of the day. They HAVE to keep their drama with them. And this is real life. Do you get to forget about your problems when you shower or drive? Nope. You take it with you. You pray. You reflect. You talk it over with a friend. They weigh on your mind as you go about your business.
The one thing you want to be careful of is ALWAYS using weighty wind-down/wind-up scenes. Let’s think about this for a minute. If every high tension moment had a wind-up and wind-down scene where your character is properly reflecting on their troubles, you’re going to be repeating a lot of the same stuff. The problems in a characters’ life don’t change that quickly (or at least they shouldn’t and there’s a whole other rule that. 😉 ) so reflecting on the same things and the same feelings again and again also become tedious.
This is why it’s vital to use both methods throughout your manuscript. Sometimes we do just need to jump on and jump off the swing. Jump right into the argument. Jump right out of the argument, and move on to a different scene.
Now if you ONLY did high tension moments, the story will likely feel disjointed. It’ll appear as if these moments don’t have much to do with each other. Again, this is why it’s important to mix it up. So if you jump straight into an argument, you might want to wind down the moment. Or if you wound up, you probably need to jump off at the end. But you might have those scenes where you jumped on and jumped off, so the next scene might need to be more of a wind up instead of jumping onto another high tension moment.
Also consider the various types of winding up/down. This doesn’t always mean that we see them at home getting ready for the day or relaxing before bed, this may be jumping into a work scene but winding up to the argument with a co-worker. You might jump into a date scene but wind up to the first kiss. Some of my favorite winding down scenes aren’t new scenes at all but just a paragraph or a line at the end of a high tension moment where we see the direction of the character’s thoughts but don’t follow them home and tuck them into bed. Here’s an example:
MASSIVE VERBAL FIGHT…
Jed stormed out of the room and I stood there alone, shaking my head. He didn’t know what he was talking about.
A sick feeling swirled in the pit of my stomach. I suddenly wasn’t so sure I knew what I was talking about either. What if I was the one who was wrong?
So in this example, we didn’t end right in the middle of the shouting match, but we played it out a little bit further to see what the next actions were for the pair. He stormed out. She was left with a sinking revelation. We didn’t linger there so we’re still close enough to the high tension moment to keep things interesting but they’re also not robotic so we ended with her reflecting on how the fight made her feel.
Conclusion: In order to make the story deep and meaningful, as well as flowing at an entertaining pace, we’re going to need a variety of start and stops for our scenes. Using too much of any one of these and you’ll throw the balance off.
If you jump in and out of scenes too often, the story will lack depth and feel disjointed.
If you wind up and wind down your scenes too often, it’ll become repetitive and boring.
So take the time to look at each scene. What is happening? How does it relate to the plot? If it’s just filler, then it needs the weight of reflection, but make sure you’re not reflecting on the same thing over and over again or you’ll annoy your reader. Look for opportunities to cut out bonus filler. If you’re jumping from one major moment to another, your reader likely isn’t connecting well with your character so slow down and add more of the personal scenes, but make sure you add weight to them.