Thursday, February 10, 2011

Unnecessary Scenes - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Nancy's Mysterious Letter (Nancy Drew, Mystery Stories, Book 8)SPOILER ALERT! I'll be discussing the one of the pivotal climax scenes of Nancy's Mysterious Letter.

In Nancy's Mysterious Letter, Nancy is about to fly to New York to confront a missing heiress and the villain of the story.

Several pages ago we are told that Nancy is planning this trip. However it seems that the author needed to up her word count. Nancy wakes up early with "a persisting thought in her mind" and suggests that Bess and George join her on the trip. She seems to have forgotten that this was already her plan. Maybe the new part of the plan is that Bess and George are coming with her. Okay, I can let that part go.

Nancy goes downstairs and asks her father for permission to go on the trip. He suggests that Nancy can stay with Aunt Eloise while they're in the city. We find out that Nancy's aunt is a school teacher and that all three girls adore her. Nancy calls her aunt. They have a long talk where Nancy tells her aunt about the case and Eloise is thrilled about the visit, but this conversation is summed up in exposition, except for Eloise saying, "I'd love to see you."

Then Nancy eats breakfast. She phones the airport, she makes reservations. Bess and George go home to pack. Nancy picks them up in her car, and plans to leave her car at the airport.

The girls purchase their tickets, get seat reservations, sit down to chat. Then Nancy decides to call the old postman who'd gotten her into this mystery in the first place. This conversation is also sumarized. Nancy is glad he feels better. She decides not to tell him about her info on the villain (whom he's related to). Then Nancy is accosted by one of the villain's henchmen and chloroformed.

What's wrong with this?

The entire scene from Nancy waking up and suggesting that Bess and George accompany her, to Nancy hanging up the phone and being accosted by the henchman (henchwoman in this case) takes about a page and a half.

It feels like it's way longer, and slows the pace of the story to a crawl.

First, do we really need the conversation with her father? We can assume that if Nancy ends up on the plane, she's got permission. Incidentally, why does she even NEED permission? In most versions of the stories she's eighteen at the time. Though in some early versions she was sixteen. And according to some of the novels, the age of consent is 21. Besides which, since Nancy is unemployed, so I guess Dad is paying for all this. Still, if she ends up at the airport we can assume that Dad doesnt object, right?

Next, we never actually meet her aunt. Eloise doesn't play any part in the rest of the story. Nancy never ends up going to her house or visiting with her. Nancy doesn't even end up having to stay at a hotel, so far as we know, because the story ends at the New York airport. Why do we need to know where Nancy will be staying once she gets to New York? For all we care, she could have hopped a plane straight home once the story ends.

Then there's the whole business of having breakfast, making reservations, driving to the airport, parking the car, getting their tickets, and finally going off to make that fateful telephone call which allows Nancy to be seperated from her friends.

The story would have been much better with Nancy suggesting that all three of them go to New York. Then we could have had a smooth transition:
The three girls arrived at the River Heights airport late that afternoon. They got their tickets and as they were waiting for their flight, Nancy said, "I'd like to find out how Ira Nixon is and tell him where we're going."
How is this better writing? Because it doesn't drag. It doesn't slow down the action or put the reader to sleep. If you thought my summary of Nancy's trip to the airport was dull, and uneventful, you'd be right. The problem is that the actual passage in the story is almost as bland as my summary. And nothing important happens until after she makes the phone call.

Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing-For Fiction and NonfictionIn Make Your Words Work: Proven Techniques for Effective Writing for Fiction and Nonfiction, Gary Provost makes much the same point.
For example, lets say a writer needs to get his character, Sam, from a scene in Sam's apartment to a scene at church, and nothing important to the story is going to happen between those two places. A simple and obvious transition would be "Sam drove to the church." The writer simply acknowledges that Sam did get from the location of one scene to the location of another, and goes on with the story. It might look like this.
    As Sam placed the books back on the shelves, he felt a tear form at the corner of his eye. He knew he would miss this apartment.
    Sam drove to the church. Susan was waiting for him and she was not smiling. "Where have you been," she asked.
We only need to know about Sam's drive if something important happens along the way. Since his trip is uneventful, we don't have to hear about how he started his car, what turns he made, the year, make, model and color of the car he drove or anything else. 

If the scenes leading up tp the airport are bad, an earlier scene makes even less sense. Anyone who knows Nancy Drew knows that she's accident prone. In the last few books I counted several instances of capsized boats/canoes and multiple car accidents or near accidents. Not to mention the times she gets locked in closets, tied up and otherwise menaced by the bad guys.

This time Nancy trips on her dress (she wasn't wearing high heels, since she was just trying it on) and pitches down the stairs when she goes to answer the doorbell. The dress tears and Nancy opens the door to a small boy with a clue.

Could Nancy just as well have answered the door and been told the clue without ripping the dress? Yes. Is the torn dress a plot point? No. Hannah the housekeeper easily fixes it, and we never hear about the torn dress again. Does it add characterization? Nada. Other than we learn that Hannah is a resourcefull seamstress (which also has no bearing on the story) we learn nothing about the characters. Did Nancy get hurt, thus leading to other plot complications? Nope. She grabs the banister, stops her fall and she's perfectly fine.
About the only reason the author seems to have added this scene is that Nancy hadn't had a near death experience in a while. Perhaps some of the guidelines for the series is that Nancy has to be in danger x number of times per story, or x number of times per y number of words.

Throwing your character in hot water isn't a bad thing. Whether you're writing a mystery or some other kind of book, your character SHOULD be offered complications on a regular basis. But when you do get your character in trouble it should be related to the plot, it should have consequences that affect the plot, and it should offer an opportunity for characterization.

 If it does none of these things, then cull it from your writing.

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

1 comment:

  1. You make a good point. I think many inexperienced writers fall into the trap of feeling like everything needs to be explained. Sometimes you just need to say "After acquiring permission from my father to take that plane flight..." Like you said, unless something happens, we don't need to know every detail.