All That Luggage

A writer’s interest in a character or subject can exceed the reader’s. A major  reason is that an author writes more about it than is apparent in a finished work. If you have written notes or entire scenes that you decide not to include, all of that material infuses what you leave in. That’s good practice, as far as it goes. But how can you tell when you have too much?

The clearest indication is how well you have laid out the developmental sequence. By that I mean the stages by which the topic is built over the course of the novel. If you start early and finish late, the reader will be more receptive, because they realize it is more important to the story. You keep elaborating on a known subject matter.

The worst approach is to dump it on the reader all at once. Let’s say I as the reader have been following the protagonist for the first 100 pages or so, seeing how other characters and plot lines interact. Then the writer decides to segue into a 30-page segment on the (quite disturbed) uncle. A character that comes on too strong upon first acquaintance can irritate the reader. The experience is similar to feeling pained when a conversation with a stranger becomes over-long. I just don’t want to know their whole life story. 

The problem can be compounded if the uncle, in this case, appears only in that one patch. Such planning is the fault of the novelist. If I only have one chance to meet the uncle, and the rest of the book merrily sails away without him, I’m left wondering: why did I need to know all that stuff?

The same holds true for a subject area. You may pick a topic of general fascination, such as what it’s like to fight a fire. Yet if some stranger to me goes through all the routines of getting dressed, meeting the crew, taking the truck to the fire, planning how to enter the building, and on and on, my interest is going to wane. What about all the other story elements that I was enjoying before the detour into the blazes?

Let’s return to that earlier idea: start small and grow bigger. Despite how large a novel may seem, you actually have a very limited number of targets that you can successfully portray. Maybe all of the terrific work that you have done would work better as a full subplot in your next book. Don’t shoehorn it in. If it’s important to you, make sure you lay it out nicely for the reader.

Exercise: You can calculate how long an opening sally should be, based on the lengths of your other chapters. If your average is 10 pages, don’t go beyond that. Chop up the full passage into pieces and then drop them into the existing text with decent chunks of the main plot intervening. That way you’ll be forced to develop the segue material too.

“A healthy male adult bore consumes each year one and a half times his own weight in other people's patience.”  —John Updike 

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.