Caro Clarke ▪  novelist  ▪

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Microwave writing

Elmore Leonard coined the phrase 'microwave writing'. What he meant by it you can see in his novels. Here's what I take it to mean.

You want to roast a chicken. You can turn on your oven, let it heat up, stick the chicken in the middle of it and wait an hour until the extreme heat has made those chemical changes that turn a raw chicken into a cooked one. Or you can put it in a microwave at the right setting and in twenty minutes you have a roast chicken. The oven took a long time and wasted a lot of energy to do what the microwave did in a short time. The oven needs to heat up and cool down. The microwave is on in an instant, then off in an instant.

Your story can either be the oven or the microwave. The chicken is still going to cook, but it depends on how hungry you are. In the days of whiskered writers such as Trollope, people were content to wait a long time to start to eat, and took a long time to finish a meal. Now, we want food fast and we eat it fast. And we understand fast. If a movie or a story is slow, we say: 'C'mon, cut to the action. What's taking so long?'

Let's say you're writing a thriller. You've started:

Joey settled back, his empty pasta plate evidence of Mama Rosa's famous good cooking. Mama had been here since he was a little boy, when his uncle Frank would bring him here to eat and get used to men's talk. Joey liked it here. It had always better than home, even then. Mama Rosa didn't care about table manners. She liked men to eat and enjoy. And Joey had enjoyed it. Right now, he was finishing his cold beer when he saw Spanish Dan's youngest girl across the room. Joey had known her since forever, because Spanish Dan had always hung out with Frank and all the other uncles Joey had by blood or otherwise, until that all came to an end in the big feud. Spanish Dan had been in Rikers Island for years. But there was Carla, looking great, and looking right at him. She was pointing at him. It was a gun pointing. Joey felt the bullet go through him before the noise hit his ears. The last thing he saw before he passed out was his plate, both sauce and blood rich and red.

When he came to, he was in a cold, hard place. The smell of blood was all around. His own? He remembered getting shot. Heavy shapes were hanging over his head like weighted ghosts. He blinked and focused. Sides of beef, swaying on their hooks. He was in a truck.

If this were a gentle stroll down memory lane, fine. But it's not. It's a thriller. Were you thrilled? Try this:

Joey looked across his empty plate to see Spanish Dan's daughter looking at him. He'd known her before Spanish Dan went to Rikers Island. Long before. Nice family place, Mama Rosa's. Everybody came here. Carla was looking great. She was looking at him. She was pointing. Pointing something. Joey felt the bullet before he heard the shot. Blood spurted onto his plate.

He woke up in the back of a meat truck.

Notice something? No build up. The characters, the setting, the action, bang, then it's on to the next scene. No fuss, no waste of time. The story has started and it's cooking from the first word.

You can tell a story two ways. You can explain it or you can show it. The first example explained it, putting everything into context. The second one showed it. Joey doesn't explain his world to himself. He knows it. The writer has to give the reader enough of what Joey sees and knows to let them get what is going on, but no more than that. Think of your story like a lot of video clips. Clip one: Joey gets shot by Carla, a woman he knows. Clip two: Joey is taken to a warehouse in a meat truck but escapes, thinking that Carla is his enemy, that he can't trust anyone. Clip three: Joey needs explanations: he tracks and finds Carla. Clip four: Joey and Carla decide to end their criminal families' feud. And so on. These first four clips could be four short chapters, or four scenes in the first chapter. It's up to you. End one, start the next. If you write:

Joey spent the next week recuperating in the back of the abandoned trailer, living off water from the gas station's tap and long-life cheese sandwiches from the station's food court cooler, feeling his strength come back, feeling his anger cool and his sympathy for Carla build. It wasn't her fault. Spanish Dan had a long reach, even from prison. And Family could mean more than life itself.

then you have written a paragraph that needs to be demolished. Remember, it's a thriller, a story that's supposed to grab the reader and not let go. Video clips. Show, cut, show. Don't explain.

OK, you're saying, I get it. Thrillers have to be tough and fast. But what about a romance? I'd sound crazy if I said:

She saw him across the room. She wanted him. Always had. He was the one. Forever. Too bad.

You'd say that this wasn't appropriate for a romance, that readers expect a gentler pace more suited to the story, to wit:

She looked at him where he sat at his ease. The length of the room separated them, and yet she felt as if they were the only two in the restaurant, as if she were right beside him, feeling his strong presence. How many times had they sat across from each other at a table so small that their hands naturally brushed, so small that nothing could distract them from each other? Then her father had decided that he needed a bigger world and she had been torn helplessly away – but wait, Joseph was lifting his head – he was looking at her, a look that warmed his eyes as he recognised her. Her heart twisted like a beam of white light broken through a prism: her refuge, her love, the man meant to be hers – as far from her as surely as if he were dead. Eyes blurring with tears, she opened her purse, groping inside for what would help her meet her inescapable destiny.

A gentler pace. So you're saying it's all right to bore your readers because it's about love? I don't think so. Microwave it, don't slow-cook it. Life moves fast, even when you're in love:

She looked at him across the restaurant, after so long still feeling as if she sat with him at an intimate table. He lifted his head. His eyes warmed as he recognised her. Her heart twisted like molten glass as she opened her purse, hand fumbling on the cold weight.

You've given the same information in the second example as in the first. Not every twig on the tree, but enough to know that these two people were once close. You don't want to spell out everything here. It's about the moment, not a history lesson.

Let's say our heroine rushes from the restaurant in tears, frightened and appalled, hides in her apartment, remembering all the good times with the man she loves. He finds her, and she is stunned by remorse and surprise.

   "I – I never thought I'd see you again."
   "Do you think death would keep us apart?"
   She buried her face against his rough shirt. "It has. The curse of it. Deaths we can't escape."
   His hand was on her hair. "That doesn't need to be our business. Leave that behind. We can finish this, now, and be together."
   "Romeo and Juliet?" She pulled back, blinking hard on tears. "They killed themselves."
   He shrugged. "So you tried a variation."

Intimacy can be conveyed without flowery language and excessive detail. 'He smiled, and the sun rose in her heart' conveys more powerfully the change in her than: 'He smiled, and she felt her whole essence warm in it and come to flower, as if the sun were lifting over the horizon and filling everything in her world with warmth and light.' The first example is more powerful because it's compact. The second example takes too long to say what it means, and I for one nod off.

Microwave writing means starting the scene where it starts, not a second before or after. You don't need to 'build up' to the scene. And you don't need to 'tail off'. When it's over, it's over. You don't need to write bridging passages to get the characters from one scene to the next. Movies have long dispensed with the titles 'Meanwhile, back at the ranch' or 'Comes the dawn...'. If they can do without explanatory bridges, so can you.

   "Are you coming with me?" He put on his coat.
   "I can't leave New York. They'd know. They'd find me."
   He smiled.

   The innocent Miami sun was hot on her cheek. "There's the Paradise Hilton," she said, turning to the constant miracle of him beside her.

You could have said:

   "Are you coming with me?" He put on his coat.
   "I can't leave New York. They'd know. They'd find me."
   He smiled. She could never resist him and couldn't now. She quickly changed and packed a bag. They drove to the airport, where he picked up two tickets, and they were soon high over the eastern seaboard, heading south to Miami. She felt as if she were in a dream as she came into the hot Miami sun so soon after the cold, dark days in New York, those days without hope. He opened the door of the rental car for her and gave her his cell phone's map to navigate their route. Content flooded her. Such a small gesture, yet meaning so much. She read off the streets as he drove. Looking up, she suddenly saw the hotel.

   "There, that's the Paradise Hilton," she said, turning to him, and was struck again that he was with her.

That's the way you'd expect a story to cook in an oven: slowly, with lots of unnecessary steam and heat, all its juice drying up, making it dull, dull, dull.

Microwave writing means putting just the right amount of energy into the ingredients, that is, the characters, the setting, the action, the conflict, ensuring that they change just enough for that scene and have the potential to keep changing. It's hard to do. It means thinking about every scene, because each scene has to mean something, to do something, to propel the narrative. No scene can be padding. That's not cooking it, that's stuffing it.

If you've written a fine scene where the two lovers are snuggled in the stern of a fishing boat, sharing a beautiful afternoon on a tranquil, sunny sea, and nothing happens but that, then you've wasted a lot of heat that hasn't changed any of the ingredients. Change it, get that dull afternoon out of the oven and into the microwave:

   She seemed to have been nestled in his arms forever, the sound of his heart and the slap of small waves on the hull like peaceful clocks marking no time at all.
   He jolted slightly, his muscles suddenly iron.
   "Carla, get your gun."
   She had seen the dark blot on the horizon. "How do you know – ?"
"It's coming straight at us. Must be them." He leaned for the controls. "We can't outrun them."
   She felt whitened by fear. "What will you do? What can we do?"
   "Let them get real close." Joey turned and grinned. "After all, I know how effective a Beretta can be at short range."

Microwave writing lets you pack a punch that slow-cooked writing can't deliver. Cut to the essential. Cut everything but the essential. Turn on your power, focus it, tell the story, and nothing but the story, rich, concentrated, cooked down to its essentials. That's the feast your readers will savour.