Original Fic Tip: Make Sure Everything has a Reason
Today's tip is definitely talking about one of my big weaknesses - adding cool stuff because, well, it's cool. Even if it does nothing to help the story or the plot. This tip is part of a longer article on storytelling, and I encourage y'all to check it out.
Stuff Can’t Happen Just to Have Stuff Happen
Storytellers notoriously get sidetracked by shiny baubles.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to read the transcripts from the story planning sessions in which Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Lawrence Kasdan met to discuss Raiders of the Lost Ark. I get an endless kick over how Lucas and Kasdan are calmly working their way through ideas and plots to arrive at the story basically as we know it—and all the while, Spielberg just keeps on throwing in all these wild and crazy ideas, like a little kid having the best time playing make-believe: “Oh, and then you know what would be really cool? We should have a giant boulder come out and squish this guy!”
It’s hilarious mostly because it’s so relatable. We’re all Spielberg. Not only do we want our stories to be as cool as possible for our readers, we’re also just really excited about the cool possibilities for ourselves.
But beware of cool. Cool is seductive and can lead far too easily to stories that are chock full of stuff—but stuff that doesn’t matter. And without meaning, cool really isn’t that cool.
This temptation is especially dangerous for speculative writers. The endless possibilities of science fiction and fantasy provide us the opportunity to throw in all kinds of cool stuff just because it’s cool. But as another Spielberg character says in Jurassic Park: They were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.
Why are you adding that gnarly new character? Why did you characters travel to that exotic new setting? Why have you included that funny little subplot? If your primary answer is Because… it’s cool?, stop and take a second look.
There’s no reason you can’t include all that cool stuff, but first you’ve got to make it matter to the story. It’s got to be so integral to the plot that if you yanked it, meaning would be lost. Even better, it needs to resonate on a thematic level. It needs to offer more than coolness; it needs to either ask questions or provide answers.
There’s nothing I love more than long, complex books or movies… when they work. When all that complexity comes together to create the warp and weft of a magical whole, it’s too delicious for words. But there’s also nothing I hate more than long, messy books or movies that drag me through the authors’ self-indulgent refusal to recognize and discard meaningless elements. This is even true of stories in which the pieces are great but ultimately detract from what might otherwise have been an even better whole.
Now go forth and write!