Fiction or non-fiction, your goal as a writer should be to write in scenes, whole, round rooms that readers can step into and experience what is happening there. You have to build that room or place by establishing where it is and what it looks like, its smells, the feelings hanging in the air. Next, you fill the room, either with characters (fiction) or the people from your past (memoir) or real scientists in a laboratory or witnesses to an event (non-fiction). Then, you make something happen.
An effective book is usually a series of scenes like this strung together. They can go back and forth in time; they can happen out of sequence but each one should be round and full like a fat bead on a necklace.
The difficulty with this is that sometimes you have to advance your plot; you have to convey information to the reader simply to move the story, as a whole, along. And often, this information does not lend itself to a big, blown-up scene. This is where you have to be tricky and clever and figure out how to fold the plot-advancing info into another scene. If, for instance, it is important to let readers know that Jim found the key in the silver box, you don’t have to bring Jim into the study, have him see the silver box and retrieve the key. Instead, as Jim is rowing on the lake with Sarah, who he intends to strangle in the marsh, you can simply have him pause to rest and wrap his fingers around the key in his pocket. He can remember where and under what circumstances he found it.
When you find yourself stringing together paragraphs that hop from subject to subject, it is time to step back and think about what you are doing. Here is the kind of thing to be on the lookout for:
Jim was growing increasingly irritated with Sarah, who could not stop talking about her tedious Thursday writers’ group and her novel. She had now been writing it for more than a year but Jim still hadn’t seen any of it. He continued to wonder if he was in it and what she might be saying about him.
Summer had turned into fall and they hadn’t taken any vacation. Jim had been working hard at the office at on the Grantham bribery case which was due to come to court in October. Grantham was still dropping in every day to see how it was going. Jim didn’t tell him the defense was a weak one.
In August, Sarah took up yoga so she was gone on Wednesday evenings. Jim found the house peaceful and quiet as he drank his nightly martini. This set him thinking – not for the first time – about how nice it would be if there was more quiet.
These paragraphs read like a checklist: Establish the passage of time, check. Explain what Sarah is doing, check. Establish what is still going on with Jim, check. Imagine how exciting this is for the reader. These graphs can probably all be cut. Instead the writer should jump to the next important scene where something happens and fold this information into it.