UWT #2 – “Buttering the Bread”

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Years ago, my creative writing instructor gave a short lecture during a workshop about this concept.  He may or may not have called it “Buttering the Bread” but that’s what I’ve called it for years.  Consider this type of storytelling and consider the point in it where you lose interest.

Tom got hungry, so he went downstairs for breakfast.  He normally ate toast, so he decided to open the breadbox, remove the Wonder bread, untwist the tie, and withdraw two flimsy slices.  Customarily, he re-tied the bread and returned it to its resting spot within the fly-free confines of the box.  Taking two steps east, he placed each slice in the toaster and pressed the lever with no more or no less authority than any other day.  He watched as the wired inside his dorm-room toaster heated to a bursting orange and sizzling red state.  Just when he could not wait any longer, the toast appeared innocently.  Tom took the butter from the refrigerator.  It was cold and hard to spread.  He’d learned from his grandmother that he could heat his knife quickly by holding it under hot running water.  It worked again, and he padded each slice with a unhealthy square of the stuff everyone calls butter but is actually margarine.  Tom had a big day ahead since it was his first interview, and he wanted to make sure he did not leave the house hungry.

—or—

Tom made some toast as he always does and thought about his interview.

Granted, the first one is considerably longer, but is it good writing?  Is it significant to the events of the story?  Is the author adding anything worthwhile?  Does it seem, perhaps, that he is just padding his word count total?

No.  No.  No.  Yes.

Don’t butter the bread.  Get to it and move forward.

UWT #1 – Opening with Description

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UWT stands for Unsolicited Writing Tips.  I’ll be providing my own advice for fiction (and some non-fiction, perhaps) writing that I also give to my college students  This could very well be another one of my projects that never gets off the ground, or it could become my real motivation for writing anything.  I’m currently reading a student’s work.  She’s committed a short-story writing sin in my book.  The entire first paragraph is an onslaught of descriptive words and images about the central character (age, height, hair color, hobby, etc.).  This seems rushed and unnecessary.  So, here’s what I’m going to do.  Since it’s uncouth to share any student’s actual writing without his/her permission, I’m only going to copy-paste my comment and suggestion.

In short, my first UWT is to flesh out your characters over time.  Let them have time to breathe.  Let your reader have time to learn and piece them in the same way you constructed them.

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Comment after reading paragraph 1:

This type of opening covers some basics, but it’s still very bland. Being “about” an age or height is inexact. It prevents the reader from creating a crisp picture.

Compare your first paragraph to this one.

Ericka, a slender sixteen year old girl, preferred grazing alone through garage sales over oohing with ditzy classmates over brand-name purses.

Here, I’ve identified the age and touched on her preference to be alone, as well as her affinity for rummage sales. Let some of the other physical details out more slowly as well. You’re creating a movie in the head of your reader. Don’t let it become one page from a coloring book.