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I'm writing a novel in which a lot of the time is spent walking. Literally walking along an old bridge. Eventually the main character comes across several other characters that will make things much more lively, but I need a way to fill space for two or three chapters before she comes across her first companion.

So basically, I need some ideas to fill space. I already have a few paragraphs where she reminisces about her dreams, but I'm out of ideas. What would be interesting to read but not a major event, so I can continue to set up the story? (This is at the very beginning btw.)

A few things that might help: she is traveling a long distance to find a cure for her terminally ill sister. Her first stop is a bustling city where she's hoping to get more information.

Thanks so much! Any ideas will help. I really just want to know what people will actually want to read that won't be too dull. Should I write more about her backstory? Should I express her concerns and anxieties about not being able to find a cure in time?

Have a great day! Thanks again! ^^

-Fiona

Edit: I apologize for not being clear enough. My main concern is not speeding the novel along too much. I'm looking for a way to fill space between the first chapter and the chapter where the first conflict occurs.

Originally I had it where the character barely starts walking and almost immediately encounters a hole in the bridge. This doesn't make sense for my story, so I need a way to 1. Show that she has traveled quite a long distance, and 2. Fill in space between the first chapter and the first major conflict.

I want to make sure that my novel is well-paced and that I have enough time to worldbuild and set up the scene of the novel. I just want to make sure that it's not rushed.

Thanks for all your wonderful help, everyone! I appreciate the tips :)

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  • Welcome to Writing.SE! We can give you some general advice about how to fill space (or whether it's a good idea to do so), but we can't give you any specific suggestions, as asking what to write is off-topic here. Feel free to take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site, and the ways in which we can help you.
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 15 at 18:55
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    My immediate concern is: why do you need "two to three chapters" of nothing but the protagonist walking, with nothing in the way of plot progression? What purpose will this serve? Can this not be condensed into a single chapter?
    – F1Krazy
    Jun 15 at 18:57
  • That's a good point. I just want to make sure that I'm not moving the plot along too quickly. The first major event is that the main character comes across a hole in the bridge, and I don't want this to happen right away or else the story will feel too rushed. What else should I do?
    – Fiona
    Jun 15 at 19:03
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  • @Laurel That's very helpful, thanks!
    – Fiona
    Jun 15 at 19:16

6 Answers 6

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For the most part, just skip it. She starts walking the bridge at one point. That is the end of a scene, show it with "***" no quotes centered on a line by itself.

Then start a new paragraph:

She'd been walking for 3 hours before she first noticed another girl sitting on the rail, watching her approach.

Readers don't want or need a "continuous time" story. Skip the boring parts. Don't make up stuff that won't matter to the story. Don't tell her backstory in narration, ever, don't have her thinking about it to herself, reflecting on how she got here, blah blah blah. If her backstory is important, then start the story there, and then skip forward.

In one of my stories, the protagonist's life at 6 is completely changed when her parents die. I show that, and some of the aftermath that seals her fate, as she is adopted. Then I skip forward years, to an incident that again shapes her. Then I skip forward ten years, she is an adult, which is when the main story starts.

But my audience lives through her traumas and successes that make her who she is. They understand that. So they are not surprised by what she does next.

Now, could I have put all that in a prologue? Or a remembered backstory on a long walk?

No. That just results in a lot of facts that readers have to memorize; those have very little emotional impact on readers. The gold currency of emotional impact is something that, to the reader, seems to be happening right now. Something that helps them imagine what is going on.

And the emotional impact, the scenes acted out, are what stick with readers and they remember. Not recited facts and circumstances.

Time skipping is a crucial tool in writing fiction. Start your story earlier. Tell the juicy parts, the dramatic parts. Skip the parts where nothing happens that really affects the hero or matters to the plot.

In my case, the plot demanded that the girl be an orphan at 6, to be adopted by an organization (a good one) that only ever adopts young children. So I felt I had to show her parents dying; that trauma affects the rest of her life.

Good luck. Check out some other books, don't take my word for it! Time skipping is crucial to storytelling.

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  • This is my exact thoughts, expressed far more eloquently. Don't be afraid to keep the full parts brief. A couple of richly written pages can easily give a good sense of time passing, with the benefit of sparing the read the same thing over several chapters
    – Phil S
    Jun 15 at 21:42
  • Thank you so much for your help! I appreciate it :)
    – Fiona
    Jun 15 at 22:01
  • Does a prologue have to consist only of ‘recited facts and circumstances’? Can it not act out scenes ‘right now’ (for some value(s) of ‘right now’), in the same way as the rest of the book?
    – gidds
    Jun 16 at 19:28
  • @gidds If it does that, it is not a prologue, really, it is chapter 1, followed by a time skip to start the story. At least that's what I think. Prologues are a discussion or introduction of what has happened. Without dialogue or scenes.
    – Amadeus
    Jun 16 at 20:30
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Amadeus has the correct answer here.

Another consideration is the idea: "when nothing happens on the outside, something must happen on the inside."

Ideally, your protagonist has an outer journey and an inner journey. When the outer journey slows, pay attention to the inner journey. Those are the scenes in which the characters make pivotal changes in their emotional stance or growth.

I had a scene that I needed to keep, but it was simply a mother sitting with her comatose child. The scene accomplished nothing plot-wise, but without the scene we are never shown that she sits with her child. I did not want to simply imply that she sits with her child--I wanted to show it.

Because this happens halfway through the manuscript, it came at a decent point to have the story camera turn inward and focus on the character's inner journey. So I did exactly that--had the mother begin the scene with the idea "I will sit here as long as is necessary" and end with "I cannot help my child by just sitting here and doing nothing." Getting from point A to point B required emotion and inner conflict, establishing the stakes of each choice, a real mental wrestling match and lots of crying and gnashing of teeth on the mother's part.

Some readers said it was their favorite chapter. Nothing happens outwardly, but it's a transitional point for the character's inner arc.

This approach provides another way to handle your long stretches--use these as the moments when you focus on the inner journey. When nothing happens on the outside, something must happen on the inside.

(But cutting the scenes really should be the first line of attack.)

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Talk about the character's thoughts, her dreams in life, memories and other such things. You can generate a lot of subplots from a character's past, so if you plan to do so, introduce select parts of her history early on.

Also, if you can't think of a way to spice up the journey, I would probably take parts of it out. Have her set off walking, and then skip over some parts. Unless it's important, the reader won't care about the geography around her itinerary.

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Scenes and Sequels

You're asking how to fill space between events. In general, the best way to do this is to divide the story into Scenes and Sequels. (See Dwight Swain's "Techniques of the Selling Writer").

One important aspect of the Sequel is that it "telescopes" the story from one Scene (of goal-oriented action) to the next. Sometimes this isn't even needed, you can start the next scene right on the heels of the previous. Sometimes a sequel can be a sentence or a paragraph. Sometimes your story will benefit from a page or two of the hero reacting to the previous scene. And if you write scenes the way Swain likes them, they should end in some kind of disaster, so there's always something for the character to have a reaction about.

If you're wondering what to keep and what to compress into a Sequel or even remove, Hitchcock provides a quote:

"Drama is life with the dull bits cut out"

I.e. remove the dull bits...

What goes into the beginning of a novel?

However, I also read between the lines that you are asking what should go into the beginning of your story. What should the first chapters contain more than action?

I suggest checking out story structure for ideas on what your plot needs to be doing in the beginning, as well as character arcs to figure out what should be happening on the other side of the coin from the plot.

Here are examples of things to put in the beginning of a novel:

  • A character introduction using a characteristic moment
  • Establishing the character's normal world
  • An initial hint of the conflict to come (think dark skies and a foreboding air as opposed to raining cats and dogs, that comes later)—or perhaps the beginnings of a hilariously embarrassing misunderstanding, failure, or other comical effects, or a hint of romance—all depending on your genre...
  • For instance, description of places, people, weather, etc. that is colored by this air of future conflict, comedy, romance, etc
  • I.e. tension that has the reader worrying about how things will turn out for the character.

Then, once you've finished the first draft, there are a bunch of checklists/articles you could look into... or if you want a hint or idea you could look into them now. (Though, my motto is to first write the first draft, then polish it...)

Finish the first draft first...

Another way to solve this problem is to just go with the text, write what feels right, get it down on paper in the first draft, and only then worry about the structure of the thing.

Maybe you'll create a flashback halfway through that works better in the beginning, or maybe your characters will have dialogs that hints at events that should be in the beginning instead.

Writing the first draft is a first, searching step and it will provide tons of information on where to go next...

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"Start as close to the end as possible." - Kurt Vonnegut

Start with action (or "conflict" or "tension" if you prefer) or as close to action as you can. Don't fill space.

One of the big fallacies I see writers have is thinking that, just because certain events need to happen in chronological order, that those events need to be in the book. That makes for poor storytelling. Tell what's important to the story, not to the series of logical events in the real world. A story isn't just a series of events.

Once you understand the structure of your story you should focus on how to write that story as well as possible which means eliminating all things that do not help that.

KV also said, "Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action." Admittedly I think there can be a little leeway on that rule, esp when writing good description, but for the most part, that has been some of the best writing advice I have ever received.

I think about it broadly. Sometimes the best way to advance the action is through a round-about, creative way, through a weird (seemingly) random tangent. But they should never be truly random; in hindsight it should make perfect sense how it advances the story.

So to bring it back to your story. A couple of specific suggestions.

  1. You can pretty much start with the action in the second paragraph or even the first line. There is no rule of "good pacing" that says that you can't; you can probably think of many good stories that start with action and you don't even know anything about the character other than what is being revealed in the first scene as the action plays out.
  2. You can also definitely have some slower things happen before the first main action. Many great stories do that as well. But it should serve a good purpose for the story. For instance it could give information that establishes why the oncoming conflict is so important.
  3. Or it could reveal your protagonist. If you do the latter then please don't do so clumsily through having them rehash their backstory in their head. Instead have there be some action or dialogue, something actually happening that is revealing something about their personality.

If you're looking for ideas there maybe ask yourself, what is it about my character that intrigues me most? What kind of situation would draw that aspect out of them?

Happy writing!

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Possibly start the story with her at the city. Then through dialog, her actions, etc, we can learn how and why she got there. That way you'll start where the 'action' kind of is.

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