Writing ‘Housekeeping’ Scenes

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It’s Monday morning and my house is a mess. I should have spent some time cleaning this weekend, but I didn’t. I chose instead to spend time with family and friends, and to write.

As I survey the cleaning tasks before me, all I can think is, UGH. I don’t want to spend this morning cleaning. I’d rather do anything but clean.

And this reminds me about what my writing guru, Jim Sallis, said in class on Thursday night:

Every scene has to deserve its place in the book. Make every scene count. Make every scene do as much work as it can. Even the ‘housekeeping’ scenes.

Housekeeping scenes?

He means the Getting-Character-A-to-Point-B scenes. Those scenes necessary for providing movement or information but often lacking in action or intrigue or anything remotely exciting.

My inclination is to remove as many of these scenes as possible. No one wants to read about the protagonist brushing his teeth. Or the route he drove to work. Or what he ate for lunch.

I once heard Stephenie Meyer speak about her writing process. She said she writes out all of these details. Bella brushing her teeth and whatnot. She said she writes pages and pages of these details knowing she’ll cut them later; but it helps her get from one point to the next.

Me? I’m a big fan of the literary jump cut. I don’t want to spend the time writing those kinds of details. I don’t have that kind of patience, I guess.

But what if the information that scene provides is essential to the novel?

My teacher’s advice:

Give that scene as much attention as you do the exciting scenes. Make it leap off the page.

Easier said than done. I mean, that takes imagination. That takes…work.

Now this might be a stretch, but as I’m thinking about how I’m going to tackle cleaning my house today, I’m wondering if there’s a parallel here. I know the housework needs to be done. How can I make it interesting? I’ll put on some great music. I’ll prioritize the tasks, making sure the essential tasks get done. I’ll reward myself along the way. And when the cleaning is done, I’ll get back to the fun and exciting things of life.

Do you think the same steps can apply to writing a boring housekeeping scene? Can you find ways to make the scene fun? Can you make sure the essential information is included? Can you reward yourself when you write the scene well? When you’re done, do you get to move on then to the fun and exciting scenes?

Sounds feasible.

I suspect cleaning the house this way will make the work feel less like work. It might even be — dare I say it? — fun. And I suspect the same is true for writing.

If we make the housekeeping scenes in our books fun to write, they’ll be fun to read.Β They won’t feel like work at all.

Do you have any tips for making housekeeping scenes interesting? How do you tackle them? Do you write them, or do you just skip over them altogether?

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5 thoughts on “Writing ‘Housekeeping’ Scenes

    Suzanne said:
    March 29, 2010 at 9:44 am

    I’ll pay somebody else and go stare at the pond in a distracted, authory sort of way..

    Chuck Wendig said:
    March 29, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Any time you can take those “housekeeping” sections and cram them into sections where stuff is happening, that’s a win.

    For me, novels are very much about economy, about double-duty (or triple, or more!).

    Great post.

    — c.

      Amy K. Nichols said:
      March 29, 2010 at 5:01 pm

      See, I tend to think that way, too. Jump cut to the next scene, and slip the details in there. In my current project, however, a lot of the story is the actual getting-from-point-A-to-point-B. I’m having to remind myself often that, although the journey (in this case) is the story, all of it has to keep moving forward and maintain the reader’s interest. Economy, like you said. Good stuff. Thanks, Chuck!

    Lynne Spreen said:
    March 30, 2010 at 5:18 am

    I didn’t get an MFA. I am however, earning my OJT in writing (On Job Training), and one of the lightbulbs that blinked on over my head a few years ago was the question “how does this serve the story?” Because I realized every scene must. Up to that point I had put things in my ms for reasons like this: “I’ve always wanted to talk about my car wreck; my hateful sibling; political leanings; etc.” I learned not to do that!

    So if my character is brushing her teeth, she may rush, be thorough, or drop the brush in the toilet by accident/on purpose, but whatever happens, it means something unspoken. (But I would not belabor it.)

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