Friday, January 12, 2018

If It Doesn't Further the Conflict, Should You Leave It Out?

A writer who attended my retreat/workshop in Tucson recently emailed me with a great question.  It addresses an important choice that writers face every time they work on their books:  what to include and what to omit.
She asked:  "What happens when there is an event or narrative that reflects my theme but doesn't have enough conflict to carry the story forward.  Should I exclude it?"  For example, if a character supported the narrator in her journey, but there was no conflict involved, should this character be part of the book?
If I can rephrase her question in my own words, based on my own experience and those of many of my clients:  How do you decide what is for you, and what is for the book?   
Early drafts and revisions of manuscripts are all about discovering the story.  What do we want to say, how is it best said?  We figure out the flow of scenes or islands, and eventually we build chapters.  It's normal in first drafts to need about 90,000 words (or more) because we know we'll be editing that down as we revise.  First drafts of manuscripts are often bloated with stuff we end up discarding.  Maybe it appealed to us early on but as we get clearer about the book, we learn what's not needed.
In the beginning, though, we don't know this.  We are gathering people, events, and experiences to make our scenes, islands, chapters.  I find it's counterproductive in those early drafts (say, the first five or so) to eliminate a lot of material because you think it's not relevant.  That's dangerous because your view of the story is still limited.  In my experience, it's only after several drafts that a writer really gets the sense of the story.  I've learned the hard way not to discard, or edit down, too early.  If you try to make the manuscript too perfect in early drafts, you won't surprise yourself.  And if you aren't surprised, the reader will never be.   
Once you have drafted enough, revised a couple of times, and have a reasonable manuscript that flows pretty well, you can begin to look at each scene for whether it furthers the story.  This is bloat-trimming, and it has to be done.  (But again, not too early, or you'll end up with very little unexpected beauty.)  Some writing teachers use this formula to help trim bloat:  if it doesn't further the conflict, jettison it.  I use this formula in my own writing, and it works well for a while.   
So we've talked about two stages of drafting:  the early draft, which includes more than you need, and the bloat-trimming stage which begins to examine the purpose of each scene or section.  No longer are you keeping a scene because it means a lot to you.  It has to mean something to the reader too.  
In this second stage, you look at each of your choices.  You use the formula that the guys who created South Park suggest:  rather than this, then that, try looking at each scene for its effect on other scenes.  This because of that.  It makes a world of difference.  If a scene doesn't cause an effect, in some way, it's not useful to the story.  Stories are built on cause and effect. 
I've learned this the hard way in my own writing.  I enjoy the gathering stage, which is like making a huge Saturday-morning soup from all the leftovers in the fridge.  I can make a pretty delicious soup.  But I might make a better soup without quite as many ingredients.  It's hard to remove items from a soup pot but a manuscript is malleable.  You can go through and pull things out if you have enough (1) overview and (2) detachment from your own words.    
But I've also learned there's a third stage, and this answers my student's question.   
Once I've triaged based on conflict potential, I have to look deeper.  Beyond asking, Does this person or event further the conflict? I must also ask, Does this person or event help the reader understand the why behind the actions, decisions, motivations of the narrator?   
Increasingly, in my own writing, this why is most important to making the writing compelling, allowing the characters to stick with a reader, allowing the plot to be believable.   
You will do what you want, in terms of how you draft and revise.  But just consider these three stages.  They might help you avoid some heartache as you build your book.  Give yourself time and space to make a big soup that has everything in it--that's a legitimate stage one.  Don't refine too soon, before you've got enough material in place.  You'll end up not being surprised.  Then, when you're ready to move to stage two, consider the effect of each scene--not just its conflict-furthering potential, but also whether it causes something to happen that's not about conflict.  And finally, enjoy stage three, which is the most fun.  Below is a writing exercise to tap into the excitement of stage three, if you're interested.   
Your Weekly Writing Exercise    
I ask most of my private clients to do this exercise because it's a great way to start looking at the why of each person in your story.  Including yourself, if you are the narrator.
It's pretty simple:  write a bio of each important person in your story.  A resume, a history.  Made up or real (depending on genre).   
Then go through an underline the turning points, those moments in a person's life that shape their beliefs or misunderstandings about themselves and the world.  These are the components of why.  They may not always include conflict.  They might be a moment of witnessing something, overhearing something, losing something, remembering something.   
Writing the bio will bring them to your awareness, allow you to select what to include.