A couple of months ago, I wrote a post about the idea of “writing what you know”. In that post, I mostly argued that trying to write speculative fiction while drawing too heavily from personal experience often results in characters who feel like they’ve been recently transplanted to their surroundings, and in a narrative that ignores opportunities simply because those opportunities aren’t available in the author’s own experiences.
It’s not that the axiom is a bad one, exactly. I fully agree that a story benefits when an author has a connection to what they’re writing. An author who’s never been on a boat probably won’t write a particularly compelling maritime epic, after all. It’s just that I feel like too many writers limit themselves and their stories by never straying outside of the bounds of their own imaginings.
I also frequently get in fights with the idea that an author should try to tell an “original” story – actually, I’ve been meaning to write a blog post about that, so I think I know what I’m going to be writing about next month.
This month, though, I’m lacing up my gloves and having it out with those esteemed titans, Strunk and White, and their commandment to “omit needless words”.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the central idea here; readers are easily bored, and writers are easily self-indulgent. If we’re not careful, we’ll go on and on (and on) about things that only interest us, adding too much backstory and explaining things that don’t need to be explained until we’re blue in the face.
And the full explanation in The Elements of Style is quite reasonable:
Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.
Well and good, especially if you pay particular attention to the last sentence.
The problems start occurring when writers start paying too much attention to the letter of the law without understanding the spirit behind it.
Writing isn’t mechanical engineering. It’s not drawing. It’s not anything except, tautologically, what it is: combining words into phrases into paragraphs that allow you to share something with your readers. Words that help you do that are necessary; words that don’t help you do that probably don’t belong. But in spite of what Mr. Stunk suggests, there is no easy way to objectively determine which words are helpful and which ones are taking up unnecessary space. This is mostly because each piece of writing is trying to accomplish something unique, and
This is mostly because each piece of writing is trying to accomplish something unique. The words that will help one story will hurt another. The same thing applies to stylistic elements: the passive voice can be quite useful if you want to establish a detached mood, and rambling sentences are good at conveying disorientation.
I’ve heard people suggest that an author shouldn’t include anything in their novel that doesn’t move the plot along. This came after I posted on a Facebook writing group about how I wished that more authors would let their characters think about plans that won’t work or won’t occur. I had just finished watching Season 1 of Game of Thrones, in which many characters worry about what could happen if Danaerys and her Dothraki army cross the sea and land in Westeros, and it struck me as bizarre that not a single person ever suggested trying to sink the ships while they were still at sea. I can imagine many reasons why George R. R. Martin (or the tv show’s writers) might not want that to happen, but you’d think that a collection of strategists and clever people would at least consider using their own ships to solve the problem.
The response I got back surprised me: The books and tv show are too long for the author to waste time on things that aren’t going to happen; if it doesn’t move the plot forward, it doesn’t belong.
Here’s the problem with that: most stories are about more than plot. As a matter of fact, I can’t off the top of my head think of any stories where the plot is the only thing that matters. Maybe a case could be made for some slasher horror movies, where the characters are utterly irrelevant as long as somebody’s running and somebody’s chasing and somebody’s getting crushed by a garage door …
By the same token, there are very few stories that are purely about character. Even biographies and character studies still tend to have a certain amount of plot, if only because a person’s experiences help to shape their character.
Most of the time, though, a story is about a lot of things: plot, character, setting, themes. None of them are inherently any more important, or necessary, than any other – it all depends on what kind of story you want to tell. Similarly, anything you write can help develop any one of those things, with different types of sentences and different types of ideas working more or less effectively at a given task.
So people are right; considering and then dismissing a potential course of action doesn’t help to further the plot. From that perspective, it’s a waste of time and words. What it does do, though, is give an intelligent character a chance to demonstrate their intelligence – or maybe it gives a foolish character a chance to look like an idiot by dismissing a good idea out of hand, which in turn gives other characters a chance to hold their tongues, helping to clarify a power dynamic.
Is it necessary? No. A better question, I think, is “is it appropriate?”
Will it help the story?
That depends entirely on the story, on how well characters have been developed up to that point, on how well the dynamics are established, on how much momentum the plot has, on how many questions the reader has and how many of them need to be answered how quickly.
No piece of writing can contain everything. At some point, character development moments are going to have to be cut so that a theme can be reinforced; or, the exploration of a setting needs be taken out so that the plot doesn’t get stuck in a swamp. A good story is one in which the elements are balanced. For some, that will mean taking out unnecessary reflection and clipping sentences to keep them direct and to-the-point. For others, it will mean taking some time away from the action to let your readers get to know their protagonists in all of their run-on glory.
Game of Thrones in particular likes to devote a lot of time to dramatic pauses, characters looking out into space … and sex. I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. The show is very good at creating tension and atmosphere, and I think the story benefits from that. (I never got past the first book while I was reading; I found the narrative too self-indulgent.) There are a lot of bloody swordfights that I thoroughly enjoy watching, and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Just don’t try to tell me that there isn’t time for people to have a twenty-second conversation because it isn’t “necessary for the plot”.
This post is my contribution to the August edition of #AuthorToolboxBlogHop! As always, check out the main link for lots of other fantastic authors with lots of other fantastic advice.