If people are going to skim over it, leave it out
You ever find yourself reading something, thinking, “I know that,” and then skimming until you find new information?
What if you could write so that none of your readers ever did that?
Well, you can’t. That’s because there’s no way to know what every one of your readers know. But you can minimize the skimming. You can leave out the stuff that it’s reasonable to believe your readers either know or can figure out.
If you want to see this technique at work, go to the movies. With only about two hours to tell an often-complex story, filmmakers are very good at leaving out the stuff you don’t need.
For example: Over the holidays I watched the Christmas movie “Elf” with my wife and kids, an annual habit. This time, we also watched the behind-the-scenes features. In one of them, director Jon Favreau described why he cut a scene in which the James Caan character meets his wife, played by Mary Steenburgen, outside her work. He tells her that he’d just learned he had a grown son from a relationship in his distant past, which the audience already knew.
The next scene, which stayed in the movie, begins with Caan and Steenburgen emerging from the elevator in their apartment building, obviously coming home at the end of the day. She is saying how exciting it is that he has a son, assuring him that they’ll work out any issues that arise.
Favreau says that the deleted scene was perfectly good. It had a couple of funny moments and Caan and Steenburgen were good in it. But, he says, it wasn’t necessary. When the audience sees the couple emerging from the elevator and talking about Caan’s newly discovered son, we know that he has just dropped the news on her.
When you’re writing, think about the things your audience already knows. When it’s the Thursday of Super Bowl week, your readers probably know that the big game is only three days away and tension is building.
When writing about the New England Patriots preparing for the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game, you don’t need to go into too much detail backing up the idea that the Broncos have a good offense. Anyone who’s read more than a couple of sentences into an AFC Championship Game preview is going to understand that a team that scored 37 points a game is tough to defend.
Skip ahead to why they’re so good. That’s what your readers would want to do anyway.
The great novelist Elmore Leonard put it this way: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”