Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 8: Patchwork

Welcome! Over the next many months we invite you to return here, specifically on the fourth Thursday of each month for the newest installment of Sue Harrison‘s teaching: Writing The Third Dimension. You can read all the segments by clicking on the page title WRITING THE THIRD DIMENSION, found under Writers’ Helps & Workshops on the drop-down menu. Please feel free to ask questions and leave comments for Sue. Now for the topic for month eight:


“Writing the Third Dimension” – part 8: Patchwork

When I was about seven years old, my Grandma Kate made me a quilt for my doll. Exquisitely pieced with tiny hand stitches, that quilt is one of my most precious possessions. Each square is about one inch by one inch, and scattered throughout are squares that are plain red, but the other squares are from my grandmother’s dresses, and my grandfather’s shirts and pajamas. The variety is lovely, and the red squares, although scattered without a fixed design, unite the others into a cohesive whole. As I write this, the quilt lies in the center of my dining room table, background for a lovely piece of Belgian lace and an old-fashioned-looking oil lamp. I smile each time I look at the table. What a treasure my grandmother gave to me.


Writers also need to use patchwork as they compose their novels. Last month in my Writing the Third Dimension blog post, I explained how important it is to allow readers to “see” most description through the characters’ eyes, rather than as a narration from the writer’s point-of-view. I did mention that there were exceptions, and that’s what we’ll discuss today – exceptions. Legitimate reasons exist for brief patchwork bits of narration that don’t come directly from a character’s viewpoint. Here are the most common:

1. At the beginning of a novel before a character is introduced. It’s very tempting to write a page or two or three, but this type of narration should be limited to a sentence or two or three. Otherwise, your reader is going to get bored and stop reading before getting into the real story.

2. To allow a reader to catch his or her breath in a very intense, suspenseful scene. A sentence is usually enough to do the trick and give a pacing pause that actually increases the suspense for most readers.

3. When the reader needs a quick “you are here” logistical placement.

4. If you are using multiple points-of-view within your novel, and you are moving the narrative out of one character’s head, or point-of-view, into another’s. Without that bit of even ground between, it’s uncomfortable and confusing for the reader.

5. If there is some information that your point-of-view character does not know (a bit of history or even something that will happen in the future), but that will enrich your reader’s experience. This is tricky and shouldn’t happen often within a novel, if at all. Again use that one- to three-sentence limit to keep your reader in the story.

6. The information you are presenting doesn’t merit more than a sentence.

Novelists will find themselves confronted with nearly all of these situations in each book they write. They’re the ‘patchwork’ stuff, but as the writer you don’t want them to sound patchy. You want them to blend in, and the best way to do that is the same way a good quilter sews a quilt – with tiny inconspicuous stitches.

Okay, I can hear your question right now. What does that mean within the context of a novel?

1. Don’t get out your thesaurus. Use normal everyday words.

2. Make your point and then jump into a character’s point-of-view or a dialog.

3. Avoid complex sentences.

There you have it. A reason to break the rules and how to do so inconspicuously. Maybe it’s time to add here that one of the biggest mistakes new novelists make is adhering too rigidly to the rules, and someday we’ll talk about that, too!

My question for you: When you give someone directions or describe something, do you tend to be long-winded or to-the-point?


*Writing the Third Dimension, copyright, 2010 Sue Harrison*

Sue HarrisonBestselling author, Sue Harrison, has written two Alaska trilogies: The Ivory Carver Trilogy and The Storyteller Trilogy, and a middle readers’ book SISU. Prior to the publication of her novels, Harrison was employed at Lake Superior State University as a writer and acting director of the Public Relations Department and as an adjunct instructor in creative writing and advanced creative writing. For more information, click here. To inquire about booking Sue for workshops or speaking engagements this year, click here.

Thanks for joining us! Please feel free to leave your questions and comments. We invite you come back September 26, 2013 for part 9.


5 responses to “Sue Harrison’s “Writing the Third Dimension” – part 8: Patchwork

  1. WOW!!! GREAT!!! (and I am a long-winded type of describer because I have multiple trains of thought) ;D


  2. Thank you, Erik! You have a great advantage as a writer and reviewer because you have multiple trains of thought!


  3. Thanks for the tips on how to be brief and unintrusive when we have to add a bit of patchwork. I’m definitely a long-winded explainer, and one of the things I love about writing is that I can condense what I originally write before inflicting it on the world.


  4. When writing for children, it is important to pare down descritpions and narration or you will lose them quickly. It is hard but after I write something, I usually go through it and cut out much of the excess. This is all very good information Sue and will help.


  5. Thank you for your input, too, Darlene. I need to remember your point about paring down descriptions. I’m nearly done writing the rough draft of a suspense novel, and it’s coming in at 120,000 words. Hmmm, about 30,000 words more than I need. You better believe that I’ll be paring, and especially descriptions!


I look forward to reading your greatly appreciated comments. Thanks for making my day! :)

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