Writers are explorers. Explorers of the mind, explorers of the world, the universe, the alternate universes. Chasers of What ifs and How could this be. And it is really pretty excellent. But sometimes we get so lost in our explorations on paper, that we forget we are there to tell a story.
Have you ever had a conversation with a friend who wanted to tell you something that happened, but kept getting distracted with details? It went something like this:
Oh, I need to tell you about Saturday night! I was out with Kim, you remember Kim, right? She’s the one who went sky diving? Yeah, i know sky diving scares the hell out of me. She went with John and Laura. They asked me to go, but i was like, no way. But I might go bungee jumping if they ever do that again. You want to come with me? Oh cool. My brother went last year and he loved it. He went while he was on that business trip in Maui. Yeah, Seriously. Why doesn’t my job send me on business trips to Maui? I only ever get to go to Scanton. Although, they were talking about the conference in Vegas next year, so fingers crossed.
Oh, yeah, so anyway, Saturday…
I admit, I am guilty of this. In a back and forth exchange, I have so many trails to follow, I tend to run down all of them.
But reading my meander toward a point is not so easy when my path is all over the place.
And the same goes for writing.
Early on in my work, I loved to explore subplots, quirky backstories for secondary characters, set the scene with interesting facts that I’d dug up.
My manuscripts would take forever to finish and when they were done, they were drawn out, confusing and sorta dull.
No one cared about the quirky backstories, though I loathed to cut them. People fell asleep at my extensively researched description of the history of the Jersey boardwalk.
I remember one, first chapter scene, where I described how every character there made their taco, thinking this was a brilliant little detail that showed something important about them.
But it wasn’t a little detail. Describing how four characters make their tacos took two paragraphs.
Two paragraphs too much, as it turns out, because no one actually cares about characters they just met and how they like their tacos. They want to know why they should care about them, if they should care about them (since three of the characters never made it past the second chapter, the answer was not really) and what the hell they are doing.
The plot. That is what a reader cares about first. How you share they plot makes all the difference, but a story that is more details than plot is a story that people will not stick with.
Imagine the conversation about Saturday night was actually a story entitled “Saturday Night”. If the first two chapters were filled with details about Kim and sky diving and business trips to Maui and Scranton, would you keep reading? What the hell happened Saturday night? And what do any of these people or these details have to do with it?
Now instead, imagine it went something like this.
Saturday night the narrator and Kim went into the city with plans to walk along Broadway and grab a meal. The first place they went to had a long line and then the kitchen caught on fire. Narrator was so freaked out that she wanted to go home but as they tried to catch a cab they found a new restaurant that looked interesting and went inside, surprised that they were seated immediately during the dinner rush. While they discussed Kim’s latest sky diving experience, which the narrator had opted out of joining, Bruce Willis was seated at the table beside them. They asked for a picture with him and he got irritated.
They apologized and bought him a drink. He laughed and they got to talking to him and he offered them his tickets to Hamilton, that night.
On the way to the show Kim fell in a puddle, and her outfit was covered in mud. They almost called it quits but a stranger gives her a towel and Kim sorta cleans herself off decided to just go with it.
They went to the show and during intermission they met the actor playing the lead. He thought Kim’s muddy outfit was so funny invited them backstage after the show where they me the cast, drank IPAs with the crew and the narrator, who’s been unhappy at her job for a long time, met a set designer who asked her to interview for a new position.
More interesting that going on and on about the random events in other peoples lives?
Details are important. Details flesh out the story. But the story is the point of it all. If you find that you have wandered off the path too many times or in too many different directions in your manuscript, try nailing down the driving action in short sentences.
Kim and Narrator go to Broadway.
Fire at restaurant compels them to find new restaurant
Meet Bruce Willis
Get Hamilton tickets
Kim falls in mud.
Kind stranger gives her a towel
Meet the lead of show
Invited back stage
Narrator offered interview for dream job
Each event leads to the next, which leads to the resolution. The rest is just filler.
Thoughts? Ideas? Primal Scream? (this is what my freshman English Prof used to say at the end of every class. There’s a random detail for you)