Friday, October 30, 2009

Micro-Managing Your Story

Recently I've come across more than one book that does something like this:

"I was totally freaked out and I didn't know what to do. I realized I was thirsty so I went downstairs and over to the refrigerator and opened it up. I searched through the food and drinks on the crowded shelves until I found the chocolate milk in the door, where we never keep it, which irritated me. I put the chocolate milk on the counter and then went to the cabinet and pulled out a cup. I poured the chocolate milk in the cup, making sure to put it back where we usually keep it in the refrigerator before sitting down. I drank the milk but it didn't ease my mind so I went back up to my room to think, leaving the cup behind."

I call this Micro-Managing your story. Now Stephanie has already written a fabulous post on self-editing that addresses many of the things that are wrong about this and how to fix it. What I want to talk about is the why.

Aside from inexperience, I think there a couple reasons why this type of over explaining happens. The main one being control issues, which of course come from fear.

It's can be scary to think that someone might interpret your character's actions or behaviors in a way that is different from your intentions and therefore, not like your book because they don't understand what you're trying to say. I get that. I do. Unfortunately, in the art world (and writing is art) you don't get to decide how other people interpret your work. Now you might think that makes it all the more important that you put down everything exactly the way you see it but you would be wrong, and I'll get to the why in a minute.

Reason #2 why this type of verbal diarrhea might spew from your fingers. (Pretty image, huh?) You're a visual thinker. Maybe (like me) you come from the world of film, or you see your scenes play out in your mind like a movie and then write them down. This is something I struggle with daily. Having gone to film school and learned to distill any story into a sequence of images, when writing, I always think in terms of film editing. Like: If I say she was at the refrigerator and then next thing I mention, she's at the table, when did she sit down?? How will anyone know she walked over there? Or: If I say she has a cup in her hand and then she leaves, people will think she still has the cup and they'll wonder what she's doing with it!! And if this was a movie, I would be right. But it's not. And just like I have to accept the idea that people will see what they want in my work, I also have to trust that they will fill in the details when necessary.

So now let me tell you why this type of detail-oriented writing can become a real problem. (Aside from the fact that it's tedious and readers will get bored and frustrated waiting for something to happen.) It's because we are trained to read a certain way. This is easiest to explain using film, so indulge me.

When writing a screenplay, the biggest issue is time. You have 90 minutes to 2 hours to tell your story. On average, one page of a script = one minute of screen time. This makes every single minute gold. Think about that for a moment. You have to choose the best 40-60 scenes to tell your entire story. Even if that story is epic. Which means there's not a lot of time for excess information that does not tie directly to the plot. As filmgoers we've learned to take note of any seemingly innocuous detail and catalog it with the assumption that it's being shown to us for a reason. For example, one of the first "rules" in screenwriting is never show a gun unless someone's going to use it later on.

Now let's look at the example above. The last line ends with "leaving the cup behind". Sounds ominous doesn't it? Like, leaving that cup behind was the straw that broke his neat freak sister's back and after discovering it, she went on a shooting spree, determined to get rid of all the messy people in the world. That would make reading everything that preceded that line worth reading, right? (Well okay, not really, but still.)

But what if nothing happens with that cup? What if the character goes back upstairs and starts playing video games and that cup is never mentioned again? Now your reader is left wondering why they were told about that cup at all. And if you keep doing it, then your reader starts to wonder how they're supposed to read your book, because they can't tell the important stuff from the unimportant. Eventually, if they bother to finish, they will begin dismissing all your details as useless, even the important ones.

Think about every piece of information in your book as having weight. Now, is the fact that your character left his cup on the counter equal to the fact that there's a portal to hell in his bedroom closet? Do they weigh the same? Do they both deserve the same amount of space in your chapter? Remember, space is gold. Readers want to know what happens next in the plot, not in the day. Use your valuable space to tell your story, not the stuff that happens in between plot points.

Lastly, if you're using this type of over-writing to pad your manuscript, stop right there. If you don't have enough plot to fill out 60,000 words, you don't have enough to write a book. It's time to think about subplots and character development, not excessive attention to useless detail. Either that, or you have a movie!


Sara ♥ said...

YES. You are so correct. Next week I'm posting about this - proportion... It's the former math teacher in me, I can't help it. But the length of time something in a scene is descriped should be proportional to the importance of that thing to the scene/story overall.

Great, great post

Valerie said...

Thanks so much! I was worried it got pretty long there, which kind of goes against the whole point I was trying to make! LOL

I think balance is such a huge thing in a book. It can make or break your story, but it's also so easy to fix if you just take a look at what you're writing.

Anna said...

Great post! I think I might start having my writing students chant "space is gold" to themselves as they write. :-) I love what you say about different details having different weight - great way to think about what to put in and what to leave out.

Deb Cushman said...

I agree that I do a lot of this in my first drafts because I want to make sure that I have people where I need them to be doing what I need them to do in a physically possible manner. Sometimes I have to work hard to get rid of these stage directions. I have a reader friend who helps me find them!

Stephanie Perkins said...

This is excellent. It's fascinating to hear the take on this phenomenon from a filmmaker's point of view! I'm glad I'm not the only one getting tired and frustrated by these refrigerator scenes.

(And thank you very, very much for linking to me!)

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