The scene begins. Wind blows across a harsh desert, or maybe rain is falling on a dreary city alleyway, or perhaps sun is shining through gaps in the leaves of a peaceful green forest. Wherever the story is taking place, a figure appears in the distance. The figure is stumbling, or hurrying, or strolling; maybe we’re told that the figure is lost, or avoiding being seen, or is relaxing. They could be panting, or mumbling, or whistling. Slowly, the view dials in on the figure. It looks to be male, or female, or perhaps neither. We’re told the figure has a ragged beard, or a dark hat and trenchcoat, or metallic skin. Gradually, we get more and more details about the appearance and behavior of the figure. Perhaps we’re expressly told that the figure has survived a plane crash, or is a cat burglar on the way to a job, or is an oddly-built android; after this point, the “figure” might begin to be referred to as the survivor, the thief, or the android. Whoever they are, the figure keeps moving, and more details of their appearance and what they’re doing are gradually revealed.
Finally, after anywhere from several paragraphs to several pages, we find out the name of the figure—maybe they meet someone else who calls them by name, or maybe the writer simply felt that this would be a good point to reveal it. From this point on, they cease to be the “figure,” the “survivor,” the “thief,” or the “android.” They are called by name for the rest of the story, whether they’re the protagonist, a side character, or a temporary, otherwise-unimportant vessel to carry us to the actual plot.
If you have been writing for any length of time, then you’ve probably written some variation of this scene. Everyone does, at some point or another, and I do mean everyone. It’s almost always a bad idea.
Why is this a problem?
Because it is slow, distant from the character, and usually distant from the plot; put those together, and you’ve got a whole basket of boring. And being boring is the worst sin a piece of purported entertainment can commit.
Slow: Usually, not much is happening while the “figure” walks across the screen for us to admire. Why? Because it is difficult to blend description and action, so the writer is getting all of that pesky description out of the way before they actually get to the action. That’s an adequate workaround, but it would be a better idea to start closer to the action and learn to work in shorter, quicker bits of description along the way. We’ll go over tips for doing that well at a later date.
Distant from the character: Why don’t we know the character’s name? There is almost never a good reason—new writers simply withhold information out of habit, trying to give every bit of info through some sort of “reveal.” This isn’t a movie; we don’t need to zoom in from an establishing shot, drawing closer and closer to the figure until we suddenly get their name and jump inside their head to start finding out what they’re thinking about what they’re doing and the things around them. That just doubles up on the slowness of the piece—first, we spend pages setting the scene, and then we have to sit through the character thinking about everything that we’ve just seen, forcing us to go over it all again? Just put us in their head and give us their name right from the start. Help us know them through their actions and how they perceive their surroundings, and it will be more interesting.
Distant from the plot: All of this scene-setting isn’t the plot, it’s a gradual meander toward the plot. But your readers already approached the story—they bought your book or borrowed it from a friend or looked up your story where it’s available online. Don’t languish in non-action because you’re so impressed with your breathtaking powers of description. Your readers picked up a story, so just get to it.
As I mentioned before, almost every writer has done this at some early point of their career, usually well before they got published. I did this on multiple occasions before someone pointed out to me why it was a problem. Ask an author sometime; they’ll probably know about the Figure Problem (though not necessarily by that name) and will be able to remember when they did it themselves. So don’t feel bad if your current masterpiece begins this way—you’re in good company.
In this post, we discuss how the Figure Problem can become even worse.