Novel writingStory Details

Extract the extraneous

From Scott:

We’ve all read a book where a seemingly random object or event will suddenly interrupt the story. This interjection is so out of place that we know it has something major to do with the plot. We spend time trying to figure out what the effect on the storyline will be… perhaps even long after we’ve put the book down for the day. And finally, we come to the end of the story, only to find that the interruption was an extraneous loose end, having nothing to do with the book.

This is a mistake made by authors of all stripes. One particular best-selling author is notorious for it. I’ve read over a dozen books by this author (most of them more than once), and I find it very frustrating. Two or three times in every book, a character will find what appears to be a significant clue, proclaim that there is something important about it, but admit that whatever it is seems to be eluding him. Unfortunately, that’s the last we hear of it. When an author puts these types of things into a book, he lets his readers down. A promise was made, but there was no follow through.

There are many reasons an author might do this. The simplest reason is ignorance of the fact that the object is significant. By “ignorance,” I don’t mean stupidity. I’m referring to a lack of knowledge about something, which implies nothing about a level of intelligence. Like many of the mistakes we authors make, we simply missed them because we see the book the way we meant it to be, not the way it actually is. So something that appeared to the author as a minor detail turns out to be a major hiccup in the way the story unfolds.

A second reason is that the author might try to be too clever. She might be seeding the story with foreshadowing, but she doesn’t want to make it too easy for the reader to guess what is coming next–an honorable intention, but one that carries a very negative result. It’s true that you want to keep your readers guessing up until the last part of the plot finally unfolds. But carry that too far, and you may cost yourself readers in the future. I believe this to be the case with the author I mentioned above. Those books contain plenty of foreshadowing, all of which is much more obvious when you read them a second time. But many of the events are simply red herrings, with no further connection to the plot of the novel. This author let the readers down.

Another possible source is from an author going too far in his attempts to set a scene. I mentioned in an earlier blog that scene-setting is important, but that going over the top can be detrimental to the quality of your writing. In this case, perhaps you mention a gun positioned on a table in the corner of the room. Your intensive description of the gun leads the reader to believe the gun will play an important part, either in this scene or an upcoming scene. When that gun never shows up again, your readers will be unhappy.

Just keep in mind the concept of “Chekhov’s Gun.” I’m not referring to the Star Trek character, but to a Russian writer named Anton Chekhov. He carries the principal to an extreme, saying that nothing should be in your story unless it has a direct relationship to the plot. I wouldn’t go that far, but the idea itself is sound: if you build up an object or event in your story to the point it becomes significant, the rule of Chekhov’s Gun applies.

In my next post, I’ll show a few novel excerpts to demonstrate both sides of this rule.


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