Novel writing

We extracted the extraneous (part 2)

From Scott:

In my previous post, I discussed the inclusion of unnecessary clutter in your novels and how this can be detrimental to the quality of your work. If you put emphasis on something in a particular scene, it’s generally a good idea to make sure that object is important to the plot. Failure to do so can disappoint and frustrate your readers.

This week, I’ll take a look at a few examples of how this works, both properly and improperly. Showing this in action will help me demonstrate how important this facet of your writing can be.

I’d like to start with a movie that most of us have seen: The Bourne Identity. I have to confess that I haven’t read the book, but I found the entire series of movies to be riveting. However, despite all of its strengths, the director included a couple of examples of extraneous clutter that leads movie viewers (or book readers) astray.

When Jason Bourne and Marie leave the apartment in Paris, there is a body on the street (the man who jumped from Jason’s window). They skirt the area around the body and walk away. However, as they leave, the camera zooms in on one of the people crowded around the body. He gives the pair a suspicious look as they hurry off. This is the movie equivalent of an author placing extra emphasis on a certain point. As I was watching the movie, I expected this man to notify police about the suspicious couple. But the man is never heard from again.

The same happens when Jason and Marie unexpectedly exit a taxi a couple of blocks shy of their destination. Jason hands the driver a wad of cash, and the driver protests, saying it’s too much. As Jason and Marie run off, a police officer comes over to speak to the taxi driver about parking where he did. Again, I expected this to lead to another chase scene, but nothing further happened.

You can see how this is bad for your novel. By inserting the emphasis on these two instances, you have built the expectation that something will come of it. Readers will try to guess what is coming next, so they will anticipate a major event coming from what you have shown them. When you fail to deliver, it will reflect negatively on your work.

Now, I would like to show some examples of how this looks when the extraneous information turns out to be important. Sometimes, it leads to an immediate change, as those two scenes in the Jason Bourne movie should have. In some other cases, it turns into a bit of foreshadowing. Be warned, there are spoilers in the following paragraphs. If you haven’t read these novels, but plan to, please keep this in mind.

In his Star Trek: Destiny series, David Mack sets up a situation where several members of Starfleet are scattered across time and space. One group ends up thousands of years in the past, deep in another quadrant of the galaxy. With no way to return, it would seem natural that Mack would simply leave the characters out of the rest of the story, or have them die in their vain efforts to return. Instead, he kept returning to their struggles to survive in a harsh environment. At the time, I kept thinking that if he continued to follow this group, something significant had better come of it. And it did, in a major way. Those stranded officers, along with some alien companions, formed a race that came to be known as the Federation’s greatest enemy: The Borg.

For a second, and much simpler, example, I’d like to refer back to my first novel The Killing Frost. Early in the book, the main character (Arano Lakeland) is attacked by a swarm of stinging insects. Another character later explains to him that many insects will inject their targets with a hormone that other insects can follow, which is why the swarm followed Arano and continued to attack. Had I never returned to the topic, this bit of information would have been wasted space. However, later in the book, a race of bipedal aliens with features akin to insects is able to track Arano and his friends over a long distance–all because one of those aliens stung one of Arano’s friends before the chase began, and they simply followed the scent of the hormone.

I hope this will help to demonstrate what I tried to explain last time. I’m not trying to say every last tidbit in your novels should be a crucial part of the plot. Just be careful not to overemphasize that which is not overly important, and you’ll minimize the risk of disappointing your readers.


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