What Are Bones

As an editor, I make a living from cutting text. So I know better than most that an attempt to strip away fat risks cutting into the bone. The problem is, how do you tell one from the other? While some decisions are subjective, depending on a person’s taste, I overcome this problem to a large extent by making a few value judgments.

The first is the dramatic weight of each character. You probably know your top five characters, but what about the ones that fall outside that top tier? You can run an easy test to determine each character’s value to the book. Go through the manuscript and make a rough count of the pages in which the characters actively make a difference in the story line. Exclude mere mentions or scenes in which they are part of the background. Once you see the totals, you can make a sensible decision about which ones could be pared back or excised altogether. Cutting out the minor scuffling can save a ton of pages.

A harder decision involves characters that interact with the book’s protagonist. In general, you want to keep all of your hero’s scenes. Yet you can use the same measuring stick with the characters interacting with him. How much of a difference does a scene make in the book? Those scenes that have less impact on the main plot—such as phone calls home to mom, written to show the main character’s personal side—might be mostly changed from full dialogue-driven scenes into narrative summaries, taking up a paragraph. Scenes with colorful cameos, such as drunken college friend Claire, might be dropped altogether. Maybe you can develop Claire into a major character for your next book.

A third option is a main character’s minor plot lines. You know where she’s going in general, but what about the side trips along the way? If she’s trying to solve who killed her sister, for instance, how much time are you spending on her visits to the police station to hear the indifferent detective report the same lack of progress? One scene of no progress is plenty; summarize the rest in a paragraph apiece. Or, does she continue to probe a suspect when the plot developments have clearly moved beyond that initial logic? You should cut back those later scenes to the essentials. Finally, how much space is being devoted to background information about characters whose importance is tangential? Are all of those background stories, even the ones involving the heroine, really providing that much illumination?

Exercise: Judging according to a character’s plot function sounds mechanical, but what your characters do for your story line constitutes the book’s bones. If Aunt Mathilda is merely cute and funny, adding local color, she isn’t a big loss. If Aunt Mathilda keeps doing things that make her vital, then you’d better hold back.

“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep.”
—Scott Adams

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Example Proves the Rule

This principle is an important aspect of the effort an author must make to concentrate. Picking one example is often the best way to illuminate the spirit of the whole. That’s because a reader can recognize nuances of the individual instance, whereas a reference to a trend can remain too general to grasp.

Let’s start with a train of thought, one of the most difficult tasks a novelist must accomplish. Consider the sentence: “Irene was so sick of her job.” That statement, in itself, is not bad. We all can identify with that. Yet it’s also undefined, a widely made claim that doesn’t really move us. Does that mean she’s a chronic complainer? That’s a lot different from a woman browbeaten by a boss who “inadvertently” touches her.

Stop and step down to the next lower level. What is her single biggest problem with her job? Now expand on that idea: who is implicated in that issue? What are the particular circumstances that bring it about? In other words, use the one specific idea as a wedge to open the entire subject. Let your mind go and enumerate all the details that make her sick of that one aspect of her job. Let’s say her commuter bus is frequently crowded by the time it reaches her corner, and she often has to stand. Now I, as the reader, can identify with that. I know how much I’d hate to stand.

This same method of couching general statements around a specific incident applies to character development. Let’s say, to stay with the job motif, you’re writing a novel about Wall Street greed. The hero, Allen, has joined a hedge fund run by Jared. Rather than saying, “Jared was legendary for making brilliant trades,” could you focus on one trade in particular? Take your time to bring the example to life—with Jared’s overconfidence in the outcome, as opposed to Allen’s doubt about how money could possibly be made. Who did Jared talk to just before he made the trade? What has that person gloatingly said to Allen?

Now you can expand to that string of Jared’s strange triumphs. What, in passing, were the circumstances of those trades? If one person keeps showing up during the process, could Allen wonder if he’s behind the trades? In other words, the example proves the rule because you can define Allen in terms of the characters grouped around that one deal. Even though Wall Street usually bores me, I’m interested because I want to know how Allen fits in that menagerie.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye for general statements and change them to specifics. You only want to pick the most illuminating. We don’t need a full run-down on what Casey buys at the grocery store for her family of four. In other words, don’t expand on mundane material. Just pick out the most telling points you want to make. Then group your thoughts around those nuggets.

“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.”
—E. L. Doctorow

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine


The Way of Pedestrians

In a world filled with workshops and writing coaches, I am frequently beset with the outcomes of what may have begun as sage advice. Avoid adverbs like the plague. Don’t ever use the word “said.” Forms of the verb “to be” should always be replaced with an active verb. One of the more baleful results comes about from the dictum to paint a textual picture.

While I am an advocate of the telling detail, what usually emerges from the fair cabin hideaway is a profusion of details about common pursuits. It is not enough to write: “She walked down the street.” Details are added to create greater accuracy: “She walked down the sidewalk on the side of the street.” Now, I ask you, how is the second version superior to the first? As a reader, we assume that people walk down sidewalks and sidewalks are located to the side of a street. So yes, the setting is more detailed, but the added details are wasting our time.

Let’s return to the phrase “telling detail.” That means: what sets the sidewalk apart from others? It could be a “cracked sidewalk,” in which case you might add that the town where your hero lives saw its heyday in the 1970s, before the crankcase plant was shut down. That would tell me something. The character could be walking not on the sidewalk but in the road, a popular suburban practice (especially with baby strollers) that separates the younger generation from the less free older one.

Adding details in writing can be likened to adding details to an anecdote told at a party. If the storyteller is explaining why she was an hour late—an hour late!—in picking up Henry from practice, we don’t necessarily want to learn the details about how late her own mother used to be, or the old jalopy she used to drive, or commentary about women of that generation. The listener is likely to experience the mental equivalent of tapping her toe.

Details of the written sort operate the same way. We don’t want to know that the character opened the car door, slid into the bucket seat, put the key in the ignition, cranked the engine, and then put the lever in reverse. All that stuff could be skipped. What I want to know is: did she nearly back out into a passing car? Why didn’t she look that way? Does that indicate something about her mental state because of a terrible thing that just happened?

What tends to be forgotten once beyond the hallowed precincts of writing advice givers is the best advice you’ll ever be given. Use details to define character. You want to get inside your hero’s head? Make his world revolve around him. Everything that helps us to know him better is a detail worth including.

“Have something to say, and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret.”
—Matthew Arnold

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.