Friday, 11 May 2012

Over Complicating The Story

All story telling is a matter of event selection by the author.  You're choosing all the time what to include, and what not to.  So, you include them getting on a bus, but you don't include the walk to the bus stop.  Most writers don't include the day to day minutiae of life - getting up, going to the loo, eating meals, washing hair, listening to the radio, watching TV.  In other words, you're making choices all the time, even if you don't think you are.

Some writers, however, have a penchant for expanding stories.  For example, they want to include lots of detail about the characters past history, or the details of how they get from A to B.  Most of the time you really don't need this stuff - it's what happens when they get to B that counts, not whether they changed trains at Tooting.

It's something to watch out for particularly with short stories which are usually about one single idea or theme.  They don't expand; instead they're tightly focused.

The most successful short story I've ever written (competition winner, published in an anthology, broadcast on Radio 4, turned into a film) started out as a lengthy piece of writing over 5000 words.  It was inspired in part by a tour round a diamond merchant while on holiday in Amsterdam.  I wrote lots about the tour (which my characters took) and about all the diamond information I'd learned, but the story was actually about the relationship between a young couple.

To get from version 1 to the final, successful, version involved a lot of cutting, and what went was all the stuff set in Amsterdam about the diamonds.  None of it, although interesting (at least, I think so) had any relevance to the power relationship.  In fact, the diamond ring he gives her isn't important either, and in retrospect I could have cut that too and the story would stand. I also cut a girlfriend that the central character confides in, and details of their back story - how they met, their backgrounds etc.

The final version was under 2300 words because I cut anything that didn't add to my central question which I expressed in a single sentence:  if you really loved someone, what would it take for you to leave them?  Expressing it like this led to complicated emotions but a simple plot, and is why I think that particular story was so successful.


Bethany Myers said...

Love this. Shows how every scene is supposed to move the plot FORWARD.

Great post!

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks Bethany. If a scene doesn't move the story forward then you've got to ask yourself, 'what's it there for?'