[process] Lazy edges

James Gurney, art writing guru, is at it again, this time talking about “lazy edges”. Go read his post, then come back here. I’ll be waiting for you, I promise.

A strong analog of this problem exists in fiction, especially short fiction. All too often we see characters who primarily exist for the purpose of appearing on the page and advancing the story in some fashion. As someone once said to me of half-squads in Squad Leader, “What an existence, you live in a plastic baggie and only come out to die.”

Tom Stoppard of course took this head-on in the incredible play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead [ Wikipedia | imdb ]. And of necessity, minor characters don’t usually have the same richness as protagonists and major supporting cast. That’s why they’re minor characters.

But in good fiction, as in real life, everybody has an existence outside our purview. I once heard someone on a panel explain this as “the red slipper effect.” (A term, and explanation, I have stolen shamelessly in the years since.) Sherlock Holmes stories generally begin with a comment from Watson along the lines of, “shortly after the Case of the Red Slipper had been resolved…” That gives you a sense that Watson and Holmes were doing something before the events under narration took place.

A type specimen of lazy edges in fiction is the classic Turkey City move of beginning a story with a character waking up. There’s no transition into the action, there’s no dangling margins, everything begins cleanly and moves forward according to the needs of the story.

Real life is messy, with loose ends and contradictory threads and missing information even on the best days. Fiction should be the same way, all while not confusing the reader. Sounds complicated? It is. If it were easy, everyone would do it. But lazy edges will kill a story before it ever gets started — for the acquiring editor or the eventual reader both.

Do you have a favorite example of lazy edges? Or by contrast, busy edges? Me, I like the opening sentence of John Varley’s Steel Beach Amazon ].

And if this doesn’t quite gel for you yet, try a little bit of flash. Write a piece with deliberately lazy edges, then write the same piece with intensely busy edges. See how they feel.

5 thoughts on “[process] Lazy edges

  1. David says:

    Excellent link. Thanks for that, Jay! I’ll try and incorporate it in my next piece… I’m sure it will make for a better “in medias res” start.

  2. Emma Bull says:

    Oh, well observed and well said!

    Now I have a better way to talk about one of the things I deal with when I revise. I often find I can crop the image, as it were–start the story later and end it earlier. But yes, it’s not just that; it’s also the dawdling phrases and unnecessarily detailed transitions and, well, empty space I find. Cut, cut, splice–and life is good again.

  3. tetar says:

    This principle was one of Susie’s revelations back when we took some art classes, and it’s what makes for concise, vivid fiction, too. Beginning in media res and letting the third act be mostly implied being two examples of how it translates in fiction, along with what Ms. Bull said about cutting deadfall, lacunae, and so on.

  4. Pati Nagle says:

    Roger Zelazny always used to write an important scene that he knew would not appear in the book, for exactly this purpose.

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