When I teach my writing class, The Anatomy of a Short Story, I hand out a card to each student. I hope they tape it above their computer for future reference. It’s very simple. It’s only 16 words:
Always Ask Yourself:
Does it Advance the story?
Does it Enhance the story?
Is it Redundant?
What does this bit of “academic wisdom” mean? It means that when you write your story, short story or novel length, and are in the editing phase, at least the preliminary editing portion, look at all that stuff you packed onto those pages. Some is Plot. Some is Character Description. Some is Scintillating Dialogue. Some is Painting a Background Setting. And Some is Just Plain Boring, Trivial, Superfluous, and Unnecessary.
It’s those latter ones we need to get rid of. But how, you ask, are you to know the difference between what to keep and what should you cut? First use Common Sense. I know that commodity can be in short supply if you are blinded by the abundance of words you have written in a fit of creative madness. But let me say this, Too Much is just as bad as Too Little.
Let’s say you did massive research on an area of the country that you thought would be terrific as a background setting for your story. You spent time in the library, on the Internet, or actually drove to the area and did the research live and in person. You know every street, tree, nook and cranny and you can’t leave any detail out. Problem: The reader might not want to spend eight pages reading a travelogue about a place no matter how fascinating you think it is. If you were writing an article for a travel magazine you could get away with the detail, but the gal reading your novel might not share that enthusiasm. And anyway, how many times did you mention the waving fields of corn at sunset, the majestic forest in the moonlight, or the quaint country village in the pouring rain? Paint a word picture, don’t graffiti the entire neighborhood.
Often a writer will pack all that cumbersome detail in the front end of the story, weighing it down to the point the reader can’t plow through all that description to get to the point of your narrative and they will put the book down… forever.
Here’s a suggestion: Spread out those details. Some really are worth keeping. Every time the hero drives by that picturesque spot he can see more detail. But remember this; don’t have him see the same thing each time, over and over and over until the reader says, “Enough, already.” The only time seeing the same dilapidated shanty again and again works is if one time the ramshackle building isn’t there. Now the hero has something to investigate. You’ve changed direction. A new path is to be followed.
So let’s take that little card I provided and look at each line a little closer.
Does it Advance the story?
One of the best ways to advance any story is through Dialogue. As each character speaks, they should relate something new about themselves, about others, or about their surroundings. Here’s an example:
Barney came stumbling in the General Store on his bum leg, the one he got in the last war. The few hairs on his head were standing straight up like he had been in a violent storm though the weather was calm at the moment.
“Did ya hear about crazy ol’ Betty up yonder in the haunted house? She done come into a passel a money and is spending it like a drunken sailor.”
We got a brief description of Barney and his bum leg, but he Advanced the Story by telling us about crazy Betty, where she lives, and about that money. We also can tell by Barney’s accent that he’s a simple guy, not too well educated, and probably lives a fairly rural life.
Barney might be a minor character in this story, but he knows the town, because where does he run with the news about Betty? The General Store. Isn’t that where the town folks go to hear the latest gossip? From that launching pad others can add their two cents worth of knowledge about ol’ Betty. We will see her from different viewpoints, not one major information dump.
Dialogue is a clever way to Advance the Story because it does it without beating your readers over the head with detail. It’s a natural way of imparting information because we all tell people what happened in our own lives by basically telling them a verbal story. Your characters will be doing the same thing. But just like the goofy guy up the street who you try to avoid because when he pins you down, he spends an hour telling you some long, boring story that you have heard twenty times before. You don’t want that to happen in your book. Spread the information out. You might even get that last strategic bit of information later from yet another character who knows a deeper, darker secret about ol’ Betty.
Go over the dialogue you have between characters. Ask yourself if one character told enough of the story to keep your reader interested or if they imparted way too many details that got in the way of the story’s pacing.
Does it Enhance the Story?
While you are adding all that detail, ask yourself if it Enhances the Story. Enhancing is different from Advancing. Advancing does just what it says – It gives the story movement. It pushes the plot forward. It directs the reader to some goal.
Enhancing, on the other hand, adds color, texture, depth. But answer me this: Is knowing every fine detail of how an office is furnished necessary? Does the reader really have to know which period every stick of furniture is from? Or is the fact it is rich mahogany, fine old, oak, or from roughly the Louis XIV Period enough?
I have been reading book after book written by E. Phillips Oppenheim lately. He wrote his hundred or so books at the beginning of the last century. He has lots of detail in his stories, but he spreads it out. I get enough detail in a well-written paragraph, not a half dozen pages explaining everything in the room. He sets the stage. He doesn’t drag all that furniture through every scene strapped on the backs of the characters so we, as well as the characters, are weighted down with his prose.
Take that office reference I mentioned earlier. You might very well want to compare and contrast the guy wearing the ten-year-old sports coat with the frayed cuffs who works in a shabby office with grimy windows and torn leather chairs with the man wearing the Armani suit in the elegant high-rise with slick chrome furnishings, polished marble floors, and a monarch’s view of the city from the fifty-first floor.
How much more detail would you add or take away? What’s enough to get your point across? What’s padding? What’s the purpose of the detail in the two samples above anyway? You want to impart to the reader how each man lives. You want to show that one has money while the other is scratching out a living. It doesn’t take too many words to do the job. You might add another bit of detail the next time each man enters his respective office, but you don’t have to mention every scratch on the poor guy’s desk or every porcelain statue in that glass-fronted cabinet in the rich man’s office suite.
Is It Redundant?
The third line on the card that I hand out to students is the most important and the hardest one to recognize: Is it Redundant? It’s the trap some writers fall into when they have fallen in love with their own words. Not that we don’t love the language. After all, words are our life. But sometimes we say the same thing to distraction. True, we might use different phrases, but they mean the same thing.
- She was a lovely girl. Petite, but feisty. And she was strong when she had to be strong.
- Later, it is said: She was as tough as a boot, a pretty boot, but the leather was sturdy and the seams sewn with two rows of stitches.
- And still later: She didn’t mind taking the bull by the horns even with those delicate hands that could rock a cradle, because she was made of sterner stuff.
- And finally: She knew how to stand on her own two feet because for a small girl, she had to fight her way out of tough situations using her clever wit.
I made the examples sort of corny because too often I have read well-meaning descriptions of a single character that became funny after reading basically the same thing over and over. Or how about repetitive actions like when the characters keep going to a tea room or restaurant and eat and eat and eat. I know real people chow down three times a day, but I would prefer characters in books to forgo a meal or two so we can get on with the story.
The best way to get the point across that the girl is feisty is to SHOW her doing something feisty like jumping off a horse to save a young child or diving into a lake to rescue a dog or maybe standing up to a bully and telling him to leave the handicapped kid alone. Showing the character doing something is always the best way to get your point across. Your reader will get the idea when they see her in action. And don’t they say: Actions speak louder than words. Of course you are writing words to convey that physical accomplishment, but you get the point. So will your reader.
Another classic “filler” in stories, books, TV shows, and movies, is the constant use of someone’s name or maybe a pending event. The movie The Outlaw Josie Wales is famous, or should I say infamous, for using the main character’s name to distraction.
Even in general dialogue between characters, they keep using each other’s name ad nauseam. They both know to whom they’re talking. You don’t have to use “he said” or “she said” all that often, either. If you are worried your reader might lose track of who is speaking, try giving the speaker some action to accompany the dialogue. “Where were you last night?” she sobbed while strangling a handkerchief. The word “said” is replaced by “sobbed” and it’s an action, physical. It moves.
Again, Actions Speak Louder than Words.
But now you are saying to yourself, “Okay, I’ve cut out a lot of detail, how do I fill up those empty pages?” This is where the writer in you rises to the occasion. Use that freed-up space to tell a little backstory about your main character. You have gotten to know him or her a little better while writing that first draft, why not ask that character a few questions about his past or her family life or about “the one that got away.” You might discover some new and interesting sides to that character.
Let me tell you what happened when I was writing my Johnny Casino Casebook Series. I wrote the first book subtitled Past Imperfect knowing a few things about Johnny. He was raised in a Mafia crime family. His father was consigliere; his mother was one tough cookie. His brother wasn’t as smart as Johnny was, but he went along with the family business as it were because he had nowhere else to go. As for Johnny, he wanted to get out. He did. He changed his name and moved from the East Coast to the West Coast, but he still dabbled in crime. Then he met a female private detective and found a new calling. He became a P.I. Then he went out on his own and one day a new client asked him to find her long lost son. Finding that missing man changed Johnny’s life forever.
My point in telling that story is this: I used all those lovely empty pages to discover who the hell Johnny Casino really was. I asked him questions and dug into his background. This was all new territory. No redundancy. I wasn’t going over the same old road.
(I know you might think it odd that a writer would have a conversation with a character, but trust me, after a while that character becomes very three-dimensional. So just be quiet and let him talk to you about himself.)
You can do the same thing with a secondary character who really could use some more face time in your story. Or maybe there is a sub-plot that needs a little more detail… Did I say Detail? Yes. Sometimes you can actually add layers to the main plot to make the story seem more real. I don’t like to venture too far away from the main plot unless it somehow fits into the main story because it’s like taking a detour down a dead end road. You’ll have to double back to get on the main road again. Big waste of time… and words.
But how cool would it be to find out that the two guys who were hanging around Crazy Old Betty’s place… (Remember, she had come into that money that Barney mentioned earlier.) But What If she had really been a bank robber back in the day and the two guys were the sons of her dead partner? Now the cop in that small town can track down the two guys who just held up the local bank because the cop just got a huge lead. (PS: This is an actual plot from an upcoming short story.)
That What If approach can really help you flesh out a character or story because you take chances, think outside the box. That’s what makes a story memorable… something different, daring, and unexpected.
Layers, not redundancy, my friends. Your readers will appreciate it. It’s like having the apple pie with ice cream… and caramel topping.
So, read every word in that story you have written and see what you have mentioned way too many times. Take some of that redundancy out and then ask yourself, what can I add to make the story richer?
Just remember this…
The devil is in the details.