Serve the Story

Nat Russo Basics, How-To, Writing 20 Comments

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.

At Your Service

“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

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

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:

  1. Foreshadowing. Either foreshadowing future character change, or the means by which your character will eventually answer the story question.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.

Setting

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.

Plot

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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About Nat Russo

Nat Russo is the Amazon #1 Bestselling Fantasy author of Necromancer Awakening.

Nat was born in New York, raised in Arizona, and has lived just about everywhere in-between. He’s gone from pizza maker, to radio DJ, to Catholic seminarian (in a Benedictine monastery, of all places), to police officer, to software engineer. His career has taken him from central Texas to central Germany, where he worked as a defense contractor for Northrop Grumman. He’s spent most of his adult life developing software, playing video games, running a Cub Scout den, gaining/losing/gaining/losing weight, and listening to every kind of music under the sun.

Along the way he managed to earn a degree in Philosophy and a black belt in Tang Soo Do.

He currently makes his home in central Texas with his wife, teenager, mischievous beagle, and goofy boxador.

Comments 20

  1. I’ve been trying to improve my settings by keeping/inserting only those details that add to the atmosphere. What I mean: if the characters are happy, it may be nice to place them in a sunlit valley.

    If, however, you want to build up suspense, this won’t work quite so well:

    “Look, Marge! There, in the distance. Isn’t that a tiger?”
    “Good Lord, Abigail! It’s a good thing we’re atop this hill and can see so far, wouldn’t you say?”

    See, it makes more sense to place Abigail in a dark house, with no electricity, a raging storm outside at night. Wearing a robe as she steps out of the bathroom. When she hears a creaking door, you can probably feel the tension. Then poor Abigail hears a low growl coming from the basement and sees two glowing eyes staring at her.

    “Marge, is that you? Are those the new contacts you were telling me about?”

    See how the surroundings/setting added to that? 😀

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      That’s an excellent example of how elements of the craft can serve dual purposes! The setting can be an accidental sort of “that’s just where they are” type of thing. But, as you demonstrated so well, it’s works so much better when it’s not only serving the purpose of defining location, but also adding to the overall mood and being a catalyst that drives the story forward!

  2. You make some good points, especially concerning the ‘kill your darlings’ issue. Too many new writers (and old writers who ought to know better) think this means ‘Get rid of everything you love about the story, because if you love it, it must be crap.’ Instead, as you explain, it means ‘Don’t keep something JUST because you love it; don’t kill it just because you love it, either. Keep anything that serves the story, and delete the rest.’

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      Exactly, Thomas! It’s about recognizing those things you’re hanging onto that aren’t really improving your story. It can be a difficult lesson to learn, but one that makes a writer’s writing shine once they’ve mastered it.

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  3. Pingback: As You Know, Bob... - A Writer's Journey

  4. Conflicts. I have to mention conflicts because even event driven stories still need these. No conflict will make the story boring and will lose readers.

    This is the trouble with new writers as schools only use event prompts instead of conflict driven ones.

    Great article!

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  5. Pingback: Top Picks Thursday 10-08-2015 | The Author Chronicles

  6. What is a good level of description? I don’t like writing description so write the bare minimum, which I’m told is absolutely fine by my editor, but then get told by readers that the story is too simply written and childish. I feel I can’t win in that situation.

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      That’s a fantastic question, Catherine. And I definitely feel your pain. I think it’s a tightrope all authors end up walking (the dividing line between too much or too little description).

      First, from your editor’s perspective:
      Your editor is intimately acquainted with your story (and story world/characters, if you’re writing a series). He or she has a mind that is filling in a lot of the gaps (similar to yours as the writer). So, while your editor is more objective than you are, they’re still not as objective as your readers. After the 2nd (or 10th) pass through a manuscript, your editor likely doesn’t need any more description of a particular room or location because their mind has already painted the picture over the course of weeks/months.

      Your reader has a different perspective:
      A reader is likely coming to your work in a vacuum. They may know very little about your characters or story setting. And, they’re likely only taking a single pass at your work and forming an opinion based on that one read. For all intents and purposes, they’ve fallen overboard on a cruise ship, and it’s your job as the writer to throw them a lifeline. Description is part of that lifeline.

      That’s all well and good, but what’s the solution? I’ll tell you the way I handle it: I get multiple opinions. When I hand my work out to a handful of beta readers (along with my editor), I look for commonly identified problems. For me, if two or more readers identify a problem, it’s a problem. Regardless of what my editor says. An example from my own work was in early drafts of Necromancer Awakening. Beta readers, upon arriving at the city of Aquonome, told me it was “like walking through a grey box.” They knew where they were, and they knew what the characters were doing. But the setting, in their minds, was little more than a room with whitewashed walls. My editor didn’t raise this as an issue. I decided to listen to my beta readers and beef up the description with concrete, specific details of key things. Aquonome is now a fan favorite location in my work.

      Keep in mind that description can also be a wonderful pacing tool. If you need to slow down a little, ask yourself what sorts of things in the environment are important to your PoV character(s) and describe those things. For example, if a baker and a cop walk into a house, they’re going to see that house differently. The baker is likely going to focus on the counter space in the kitchen, and whether or not it appears organized and useful. They might even take notice of the areas useful for entertaining guests, and the pros and cons of the layout of those areas. The cop, on the other hand, is going to see the partially concealed joint under the journal on the nightstand in the bedroom adjacent to the living room. He may hear a flushing toilet and assume the homeowner is disposing of evidence. You get the idea.

      The bottom line, for me, is the importance of getting multiple opinions. As talented and knowledgeable as your editor may be, they’re only one person. And they’re not infallible. Give your reader concrete, specific details. Enough to begin the construction of their fictive dream state. And always remember that your reader has far less information than you do. Your mind will repeatedly fill in gaps that your reader doesn’t even know exists. Treat them like a drowning person in need of a lifeline. Always.

  7. Nat – have enjoyed your site for some time now – the comments show you are not on an ego trip – just giving the guidance you’ve learned via experience (not just read about and passing on). Your humor is appreciated and keeps me in a receptive mode vs certain other sites; some I suspect are written by OCD-afflicted types, with good intent, of course. A great 2016 to you and yours. LindaJPiferauthor.com

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