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More writing advice from Mark Twain's seminal critique, "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses":
. . . the episodes in a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale and shall help develop it.
As with Rule No. 1, this rule sounds obvious, yet many writers violate it. One reason is because much of popular entertainment—comics, TV shows, some films—consists of ongoing serials in which plot lines lead to tangents or unresolved conflicts or characters who contribute nothing to the overall story. I was never a fan of Lost, but when I listen to friends discuss the series, it seems to typify this approach: Make it up as you go along and keep the audience coming back for more.
The problem is, the audience feels cheated if the story doesn’t actually lead somewhere or if the various episodes of the story contribute nothing to its advancement.
Fans who feel cheated either abandon the series or take out their wrath by blasting the story (and the writer) on message boards!
It Doesn’t Matter How Cute It Is. Does It Fit?
One of the challenges writers face is that we often don’t know at first how a scene advances the story. We write character bits that we think are cute, insightful, or funny. We introduce an ominous character who we’re certain will become a major antagonist later on. Or we bust a gut to write a difficult scene, so we want to keep it. And we delude ourselves into thinking that because the scene is cute or insightful or funny or because the character is ominous or because we’ve busted our gut the reader will forgive us if it doesn’t exactly go anywhere.
But extraneous scenes or characters can slow a story down, derail the plot, and leave even the most faithful readers scratching their heads.
Beware Elves with Guns
Back in the 1970s, writer Steve Gerber introduced a subplot into the Marvel Comics series, The Defenders. Known notoriously as “the elf with a gun” subplot, it involved—over the course of several issues—an elf ambushing ordinary people and murdering them. Gerber apparently meant for this subplot to build into a confrontation between the elf and the titular heroes of the book, but it never happened. He departed the series, and it was left to his successor, David Anthony Kraft, to (humorously) dispose of the elf—who never even met the Defenders!
(And, yes, I know that several years later, the elf storyline was revisited by a different writer and resolved. Let’s just say that some things—even dangling subplots—are best left alone.)
Most of us don’t have to worry about leaving a series before we get a chance to develop our subplots. Our characters begin and end with us. Still, writers sometimes write a scene that seemed necessary at the time. Only later, when we revise the story or when our critiquing groups read it (or, heaven forbid, when our audience reads it) does the scene lay there like a puppy that's forgotten how to perform a trick.
Building a House of Cards
How do you know if a scene isn’t advancing the story?
If you find yourself repeating information, or if the characters are doing the same thing they did in an earlier scene, it's usually a tale-tell sign that the scene is going nowhere. (There's an exception: Sometimes you want the characters to repeat the same actions to show that they are in a rut.)
Writing a story is like building a house of cards. Take out one card and the entire house falls apart. If you can take out a scene without hindering the story's progress, leave it out.
What do you think? Have you ever written a scene that went nowhere?