One complaint I frequently hear in writing critique groups is that the writer is “walking the dog.” This describes the writer who leads the reader step by step through a scene sequence, often subjecting the reader to tedious monotony. Many times, this is a fair critique. Beginning writers often struggle with ending scenes and transitioning to new ones, so they drag the reader through a play-by-play of minuscule events to tie scenes together.
While this error can easily be fixed, I find the remedy offered by many critics to be just as harmful. Many people will advise the writer to “get to the action” or to “stop walking the dog.” For example, they might say, “We don’t need to know that Jane got out of bed, got a glass of water, took a shower, dried her hair, painted her toenails, got dressed, and made herself a cup of coffee before jumping in the car and going on her way to uncover a terrorist cell in Boston.”
This laundry list of actions is not effective writing, but I would resist the advice to avoid walking the dog, because walking the dog is so fundamental to composing a good scene. That’s not to say as a writer, you should list everything that happened like a diary entry. Rather, be mindful of the things that happen while walking the dog. What does this particular character see on the walk? What important things do they fail to see? Walking the dog allows the characters to interact with their world in a meaningful way.
Perhaps Jane woke up an hour late, her bedsheets stained with fluorescent ink because she fell asleep with an open highlighter and her notebook on her lap. Perhaps when Jane goes to the bathroom, she sees her husband’s clothes strewn over the floor, a quarter-filled coffee mug balancing on the edge of the bathtub, a pile of books and notepads on the bathroom counter. Perhaps as she paints her toenails, she winces at the sight of her ugly, misaligned pinky-toe that she broke while cliff-diving off the coast of Spain the previous year. In the kitchen, she sees the cereal bowl her husband left on the table, the sugary remnants of the cereal flakes caked onto the ceramic. Frustrated, she puts the bowl in the sink to soak it, but at least her husband has made a pot of coffee. Perhaps when she gets to the car, she realizes her husband has filled the gas tank for her.
By filling in these details, the writer is offering setting and characterization in an efficient, elegant way. We get the sense that Jane is adventurous and that her husband is a slob. But we also see that he’s not purposefully inconsiderate, since he’s filled her car with gas. Of course, this example is paired down to its bare bones, but you can see how the reader can learn a lot about characters and their personalities without the writer having to waste a paragraph telling us that Jane’s husband is a slob or that she likes to seek out adventure.
Write a lot of these scenes, or at least go through them slowly in your head, imagining the world though your character’s eyes. I would argue, the subtle emotional responses a character has in the small scenes are more meaningful than the obvious and predictable emotional responses in the big scenes. We know a character will be angry when they’re betrayed by a friend, or sad when their beloved father dies, or afraid when a menacing stranger pulls a knife on them. Beginning writers often reserve detailed description of emotions for these scenes and fall back on clichés. His blood boiled. Tears welled up in his eyes. Her heart thumped. What has happened, is the writer has failed to build up an emotional cache with the character. However, if the reader is already intimate with the character, in the momentous scenes, they’ll already feel what the character is feeling without the writer having to tell them.
The secret to good writing is to be acutely aware of everything. Go out and walk the dog! Stretch yourself to see the world in a different way and have an empathic response for all of your characters, no matter how good or evil they may be. Get it all down on paper. The redundant details can later be excised from the manuscript, but it’s so important to go through the process. This isn’t just advice for writers of literary or upmarket fiction. This is true for all writers. It’s the basis of great storytelling.