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Step Off the Gas

Anyone who writes has been there: All your work in building three-dimensional characters, compelling settings and a taut story arc has led to a moment where your story will undergo a seismic emotional shift. You're about to build in the reward for the readers who pick this book up. It's going to be great.

You have one job here, and it's one of the toughest chores writers face: You need to get out of the way. Step off the gas and cool down that prose.

Wait, what?

Let's think about this in cinematic terms. One of my favorite movies is Heat, the 1995 cops-and-thieves flick starring Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro. The crucial scene in that movie occurs when DeNiro's high-end crime team tries to take down a bank as Pacino and the LAPD bear down on them. The background music falls away. Faces get bigger in the frame. You can hear breathing amid a hail of bullets and see palpable fear. And every time I watch that scene, my pulse quickens and my nerves are set on edge.

A similar thing happens in well-written books. Obviously, the cinematic advantage of actual pictures is lost, but the rest of the powering down is there. Exposition is cast aside. Sentences become shorter and more powerful. Dialogue is raw and direct.

When I need to be reminded of this -- and that's often -- I pick up Of Mice and Men and read the final scene, as George comes to terms with the awful thing he must do to protect Lenny, and himself.

In the preceding pages, John Steinbeck gave us characters we care about, a setting we can see clearly in our mind's eye, a reason to be fearful for all the hopes and plans that these men desperately hatched. We need no more from him; he gets out of the way and lets us have the moment.

If it's good enough for Steinbeck, it's good enough for all of us.


Craig Lancaster's first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, was a 2009 Montana Honor Book and is a finalist for a 2010 High Plains Book Award. His second, The Summer Son, will be released in January 2011 by AmazonEncore. He's also the owner and editor of Missouri Breaks Press, a boutique literary press in Billings, Mont., and offers editing, typesetting and design assistance. Learn more about him and his services at

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  1. Awesome advise! Write now :) I'm getting over the hurdle of the fourth chapter. Somehow, this is a speed bump for me in my novels...go figure, but it happens every time.

    Thank you for your insights,

  2. It's usually when the author gets out of the way that the most powerful prose is possible. Excellent post.


  3. I often advise writers to let their characters tell their own story and stop trying to tell it for them, which is a variaton of what you're saying.

    You mentioned that "the cinematic advantage of actual pictures is lost, but the rest of the powering down is there." And you're quite right, but I'd like to offer a different perspective (one that you touched on in the last paragraph about Steinbeck's novel—the mind's eye).

    In the movies, the viewer is locked in to the vision on the screen. In a book, the reader is free to go wherever his imagination takes him. This is where tight, powerful writing shines—the short, punchy sentences and sharp, right-on dialgue you mention. This is also one reason, I believe, why readers who love a book are often disappointed when the story is made into a movie: the script writer and director's "eyes" differ significantly from their own.

    No substitute exists for powerful, high quality, effective writing that paints just enough of a word picture to let the reader soar into the scene. The information in this post is so crucial to great writing. Thank you, Craig!

  4. A perfect amplification of my last post on The Plot that Swam Away. Every emotional turning point--in addition to the climax--deserves a reduction in pace. It's a great spotlighting device: the reader knows this will be big.

  5. Very good advice. I think writers often forget that sentence structure and sentence length can be used to create tension (or not) and establish mood.


  6. I like this advice. I'll be thinking about it during editing now. Thanks.

  7. Nice post! Excellent point!


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