Many of you who follow me on Twitter have seen this tweet that I send out periodically:
It’s all about the story. When deciding what to cut, ask yourself: does it serve the story? #writetip
Those of us who have been writing for a while have this ingrained in our DNA. Make no mistake about it, though. We didn’t start our writing career that way. Like any other element of the craft, this is something we had to learn over time. Writing is like a muscle. The more you write, the stronger you get.
“Also, the Harry Potter novels are just fun, pure story from beginning to end.” – Stephen King on the Harry Potter series.
Even Uncle Steve seems to be saying something about the notion of “story” here. You can infer from those words that some books aren’t “pure story”. But just what does it mean to serve the story?
I’ve identified four broad categories that, to me at least, form the basis of story. Certainly there are others. I don’t want you to think I’m offering some kind of exhaustive list. I’m merely trying to get you thinking in terms of the individual elements of your story, so you’ll be able to make the determination of whether or not that sentence you’re about to write serves one of those elements. So treat this more as a launch pad than a destination.
I’ll admit right now that the weighting I give the individual elements below may not jive with the way you write, and that’s ok. If you find you disagree with some of what I say below, you’re not wrong. You just write different types of stories than I do, and thank goodness for that! My stories are heavy on plot and character, so I place more weight on plot and characterization than you might.
Before you find yourself tempted to say “aren’t all stories plot- and character-driven?” consider that many good stories are driven by milieu instead of character or plot (Gulliver’s Travels is an excellent example of a milieu-driven story, as is Lord of the Rings. In fact, Peter Jackson had to manipulate things to extract pure plot for his movies). Yet other stories are idea-driven or event-driven.
So, what are the four broad categories I mentioned above? Let’s take them one by one.
Pacing is a simple enough concept, but it also happens to be one of the most important. If the craft of writing were a band, Pacing would be a proud member of the rhythm section. What happens when the rhythm section skips a beat? Pretty much everything goes to hell in a hand basket. You can’t have the drummer playing a time signature that’s incompatible with the bass player, and vice versa. It’s the same thing in writing. You can’t have a story that’s screaming to accelerate to a climax and decide to slow it down for exposition.
If your pacing is off, you risk losing your reader’s interest. You’ve heard the saying “that book was a tough slog” before, right? What the reader usually means is that the writer screwed up the pacing. It was too slow. Sure, the specifics of it will vary, but pacing is at the heart of that particular complaint.
On the other hand, you can go overboard speeding things up. If your pacing is too fast, your reader will feel cheated, as if you didn’t spend the time and care that you should have. This was a complaint I’ve heard on occasion about Necromancer Awakening, my bestselling dark fantasy novel. No matter how much I disagree, the reader’s experience is never wrong.
So what’s the punchline here? It’s as simple as it is complex. You have to evaluate everything you write, sooner or later (later is better in this case) for pacing. I say “later is better” because you don’t want to concern yourself too much with pacing during your early draft(s). You’re probably going to be adding/removing content, and that will just screw up your pacing all over again, creating more work for yourself. Be aware of it, obviously, but don’t concern yourself too much with it right away. I like to evaluate pacing on a complete draft that I’ve set aside for a few weeks.
Characterization is a tricky area. I’m not saying it’s tricky because it’s more difficult than other elements of the craft. I’m saying it’s tricky because it’s fertile soil for those darlings you should be killing.
Let me make something clear, because there’s a lot of confusion over what “kill your darlings” means. It doesn’t necessarily mean killing off characters. It might. But it doesn’t have to. Darlings aren’t just characters. They’re also pet phrases/words, passages you’re particularly fond of, jokes you think are funny, moral lessons from out of left field, etc. In other words, it’s any extraneous crap that you’re leaving in because you’re a self-indulgent, egotistical creative like the rest of us.
So how do you know if what you’ve written serves characterization, or if it’s a darling that needs to die? I think whatever it is you’re evaluating (in terms of characterization) should serve one of the following three purposes:
- Foreshadowing. Either foreshadowing future character change, or the means by which your character will eventually answer the story question.
- As a means to “show” why a particular path was chosen (protagonist refuses to kill people under any circumstances, and that’s why he/she didn’t use the gun that was within reach…etc.)
- As a means to understand a seemingly illogical attitude.
Each of these things should be treated like salt and pepper in your dinner. The reader is smarter than you think. You don’t need to beat them over the head. You do need to make sure that crucial elements don’t feel like deus ex machina.
Like most elements of the craft, setting can be a mine field if you’re not careful. I place this next to Characterization because I’ve often found it helpful to think of setting like another character. What’s the “one thing”…that “x factor” or “special something” that makes your characters suddenly work? It’s the moment they finally become living, breathing people in your mind. They absolutely cannot live on paper until they first live in your mind.
The same holds true for setting. Until you’re fully vested in your setting, your setting won’t be real for your reader. And, incidentally, this can actually be harder for a writer who sets their world in a familiar environment, because the reader is going to bring their expectations to the table. If you set a story in New York City, you’d better get it right. But it’s more than factual information. It’s about making the city (or whatever your setting is) come to life. Much like your characters, until your setting lives in your mind, it can never live on paper.
But this is where the mine field comes in.
If you reveal too much setting, you risk world-building yourself into a corner you won’t be able to extricate yourself from in subsequent work. Obviously this is more a concern for series writers than writers of standalone novels. If you’re a series writer, keep in mind that once you publish it, it’s canonical. Whether or not you have a better idea later.
If you’re writing a milieu-driven story, then much of what you write should serve the setting. Readers of Lord of the Rings (not watchers of the movie…readers of the book) will tell you that the whole ring business was part of it. But what LoTR really was was a tour of Middle Earth! If you’re not writing a milieu-driven story, then your setting should serve the other elements (plot, pacing, etc).
Don’t be tempted to describe something just for the sake of increasing the size of your paragraphs <gasp>. Filler = bad, okay? Think of this from the reader’s perspective. When a writer spends several sentences describing a table in the corner of a room, he or she had better damned well do something with that table later.
This is actually going to be the shortest section. I like to sum it up by saying if what you’re writing isn’t serving one of the other three elements, then it should be driving your plot, pushing your story to its ultimate conclusion.
If you pinpoint a section that isn’t serving your pacing, characterization, setting, or plot, then there’s a good chance it’s self-indulgent. Consider it a prime candidate to be revised out, because it’s probably not serving your story.
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