New? Begin with lesson one.
I know action, setting, and characterization in description seems like a bit much for one lesson, but the topic is simpler than it sounds. We've already covered the creation of setting and characterization. Today we'll just discuss how to work them into the story itself.
Today's topic is all about making your words earn their keep. To make the cut, each sentence, each word, needs to add something to the story whether it be to plot, setting, characterization, or background. There's a reason you don't usually see small talk in books. It's boring, and it rarely contributes anything to the story.
This sounds like an editing topic. Why talk about it now?
While it's true this topic does apply to the editing phase, it can help to keep this notion in mind while drafting. If you find yourself lost in a "filler" section, it can help you determine if you need to keep slogging through or just highlight the area and jump ahead to where you're going. Transitions can be quick and easy fixes during editing. If you know a section that is troubling you isn't necessary, it can make leaping ahead easier unless you simply need to work through the space between for your own sake.
Okay, so how do I tell if something adds to the story?
You can find a lot of work out there that's either chock full of filler or all plot with a blank setting and stock characters. These are extremes of either two few cuts or either drastic cutting or a lack of fleshing out the background and characters to begin. The best reads fall somewhere in between.
During the drafting phase, if the words are coming, and everything seems to be going well, just keep on writing. You can come back and determine what to keep or cut when you're ready to edit. However, in those times where you're having trouble, start asking yourself questions.
Why is this section giving me problems? What is going on here? Where does this fit into the plot? If it doesn't matter to the plot, what is it contributing? Does it answer a question about the world I'm writing in? Does it give important information about what's going on around the characters? Does it give the reader a crucial insight into the character?
If you can't answer one of those questions with a yes, it's probably time to flag the area for editing and skip ahead. If you answered yes to one of them, taking a closer look at how it adds to the story or looking for an answer to how you could make the section add to another area as well can help get you back on track.
Let's take the opening of Zalier and Rosnine's introductory chapter as an example.
Zalier followed his wife into their appointed suite and carefully shut the door. Rosnine was already sitting at the vanity removing her adornments. He smiled. She'd never been one for needless frippery, his Rosnine. It was just as well they stuck close to their home in the North; neither of them were comfortable with the crowds and displays of court life. He covered her hand where she was fumbling for the pins holding her hair high on her head.
"Let me," he said. She smiled and acquiesced, lowering her hand to her lap and relaxing into his touch. Rosnine had such lovely hair. It was a light brown this time of year, but it'd be the color of ripened grain soon after months in the summer sun. He much preferred her habit of wearing it in a thick plait when the weather was warm or loose in fat waves during the cold months to the intricate knots favored in Reiont. How could a woman carry so much hair coiled and piled on her head with metal pins and heavy adornments without a constant headache? "Why do you torture yourself?" he chuckled as he began pulling pin after pin from her hair.
"Politics amongst women is different than your endless debates, dear," she answered. "It’s as much if not more about image as it is rhetoric." Zalier watched her face tense and relax as he continued removing pins. She grimaced when one caught in the weave of a plait only to sigh when it came free. "The jewels, gowns, and finery are all just displays of wealth, power, and skill. If I went around in that plain, blue dress you like so much with my hair down, the ladies here would see it as a sign of poverty for our province, and us, and they’d take their ‘concerns’ for our welfare to their friends and husbands. The last thing I want is for them to get the idea we're bankrupt and only here to curry Aligh's favor and secure a loan."
This was a section I wasn't sure about at first. The characters had been more or less just mentioned in passing in all the earlier drafts, but I decided to use them to fill in a major plot hole during the last set of rewrites. I was working toward using them to further Ralic's attempt to ascend to the throne, and this bit just seemed too domestic and a bit boring at first.
I thought about ditching it, but when I started through the questions, I realized it did serve several purposes. First it gives the reader a window into the relationship these two share, their personalities, and hints at the differences between their province and the capitol. Then there are the hints at the less savory side to Reiont, which highlight Rosnine's understanding of politics and how to manipulate those around her despite the show of being distractible and shallow she sometimes puts on.
Yet other times I did venture into sections that were just transitions, bits of small talk, or rambling bits of world information the reader didn't actually need to understand the story. I no longer have those to show you an example because they were cut. In fact, the whole original first chapter and a half were hacked off and deleted because it was more or less Maya leaving Reiont castle and doing an awful lot of thinking. It was helpful for me because I was able to visualize how she left, which helped in getting her back into the castle. But cutting the sequence and starting with her arrival at Tembar was a stronger start and threw the reader into the plot within two or three pages instead of twelve to fifteen.
In short, make sure what you're writing adds something to your narrative. Does it drive the plot along? Does it teach the reader about the setting, history, or culture your characters are in? Does it give them insight into your characters? A troublesome section is only worth fighting through if you can answer yes to at least one of these questions.
As always, if you have comments or questions, please join the discussion below.
Continue on to point-of-view.
A. B. England is a small business owner, mom of two, novelist, all around geek, and avid crafter. She loves mythology, fantasy, and all flavors of science fiction.
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