Last Saturday I watched films until my eyes ached and my bum was numb. This was not the result of a decision to watch the complete boxed set of Spaghetti Western DVDs I got in my stocking last Christmas, but because I went to Brief Encounters, the Bristol Short Film Festival. 'Short' ranged from 1 minute 3 seconds to 29 minutes, and made up about five hours of screen time. Some films were compelling, while others had me checking my watch. I tried to pin point what it was that made the compelling ones so absorbing, and came to the conclusion that it was a matter of focus.
Focus meant keeping one's eyes on what the story was about. There were sometimes multiple strands, but each was always turning back towards the central story. So in one of my favourite films, Light and Dark, a documentary about the alter egos of a film maker and an illustrator who happens to be autistic, everything came back to their relationship, both in real life and in their virtual life. There was no information on their lives outside this relationship - there didn't need to be.
In the same way, when we write, we need to concentrate on what the story is really about, and weave everything back to it. This is particularly true of short stories, where there's precious little space to allow any digression, but also true in novels. Everything must earn its place, even if the reader isn't aware at first why the digression is there. In The Shipping News by Annie Proulx, each chapter starts with the description of an apparently randomly chosen knot. But gradually the descriptions tie in with the story. English Passengers by Matthew Kneale is narrated by over twenty voices, but each tells a separate part of the whole story and the focus of the novel as a whole is maintained.
Sometimes I scribble down the main story theme on a Post-it and stick it to the corner of my computer screen. Then when I get stuck it's always there to remind me: what is the focus of this book? And then I work out how to get my characters back on track and, by focussing on the main story, I find I can move on.