14 January 2015

Leave it out

Part of the story-teller’s craft is knowing what not to describe. Omitting an inessential scene has two benefits: the flow of the narrative is improved and the reader is drawn in deeper. Besides inviting him to create images from the words before him, you make him fill in the gap. This is done by providing him beforehand with the building-blocks to construct – in any way he sees fit – the missing material for himself. His vision can be modified later with references to what happened during, or arose from, the absent scene. Correctly handled, this technique may cause the reader to believe, once he has finished the story, that he has actually read what isn’t there.

(Omitting whole scenes is analogous to the excision of unnecessary words, particularly descriptors. Parsimony with descriptors leads the author to search for the right noun or verb, improving the flow still further.)

A writer can get into trouble if he doesn’t understand that some of what he has imagined should not be exposed. Sooner or later his ploughshare will hit a rock.

I got stuck like this with The Tide Mill, which is set in the 13th century. The story opens with the arrival of the economic-refugee protagonist, aged nine. I was satisfied with the first chapter and in the next continued with an account of the nine-year-old’s new life, but after a thousand words of that I came to a halt and didn’t know why. I assumed the problem was in the first chapter and rewrote it several times, even changing from third-person to first-person narrative. In the end I gave up.

Months later I was listening to a radio adaptation of a novel and noticed that the author had, without ado, jumped his narrative forward by a number of years. I finally realized that the next significant event in my hero’s life required him to be older and more independent, so I junked what I had written of Chapter 2 and started it again, three years along from the end of Chapter 1. That second chapter is one of the easiest I have ever written.

Eliding those three years indicates that they are of little interest and brings the spotlight to bear on the central event of Chapter 2, which determines everything that follows. Moreover, the reader’s perception of the missing years is enriched as the story unfolds and he learns more about the setting and the local way of life.

I believe that writer’s block is usually caused by an instinctive or subconscious awareness of a technical fault. Sometimes the fault is huge – the whole idea of the story is unbelievable – while at other times it can be trivial. In this case I got blocked because the first version of Chapter 2 lacked momentum. Like a shark, a story must keep moving forward. If there is excess baggage the narrative will be slowed down and made less readable. If the baggage proves too cumbersome, the story may even be impossible to write.

This phenomenon helps illustrate the mysterious and wonderful collaboration between reader and writer. The reader finds unnecessary prose tiresome; if there is too much of it for his taste he will lay the book aside – as will the author himself, temporarily or not.

1 comment:

Joe said...

That's a very good point. I tend to work on a kind of throw it in attitude, but now I have a character that I'm having trouble finding a use for. So now I'm considering cutting her out. Thanks!