The Importance of Everything by Meredith Bond
When I asked my friends on Facebook what tripped them up when they first started writing, one of my friends pointed out that she hadn’t realized that everything in a story must have a purpose. I thought that was a great concept!
I’ve always taught about that idea when I teach Show & Tell. As writers, we’re always told “show don’t tell”, but, in fact, we need to do both. If we show everything that happens in the book, we’ll end up with a thick book filled with scenes that don’t really move our protagonist closer to their goal.
For example, if the protagonist needs to drive from his house to the heroine’s house to tell her that he loves her and she shouldn’t move away. We don’t need to see the scene where he hits absolutely every red light on the way—unless his thoughts along the way are life-changing (perhaps he realizes on the way that he really does love her, before this he just had a vague feeling that she shouldn’t move). But unless the journey is significant, unless it serves a purpose, we don’t need to see it. You can just say “Sebastian got to Florence’s house as quickly as he could, not wanting to risk missing her and losing her forever”. You want to tell, not show.
The same goes when two people meet. You don’t want to ever start a conversation with this dialogue:
“Oh, hi, Sam! How great to see you! How’s Rose?”
“She’s great, thanks. I hope Sylvia is doing well?”
“Oh, yeah, she’s great.”
“Wonderful. And the kids?”
And so on and on it goes… five minutes of absolutely nothing but social politeness. We don’t need that. It doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t go anywhere.
It doesn’t move your protagonist any close to their goal.
One writer (sorry, I can’t remember who) once said that when you’re writing a novel, you should just leave out the boring bits. What he (I’m assuming a “he”) meant was to not write dialogue like the example above. Anything that doesn’t add something significant to the story should be left out.
That doesn’t mean that you should always leave out scenes of someone going from point A to point B if something meaningful happens then. It doesn’t mean that you should leave out feel-good scenes which show romance happening or growing because those can be gifts to readers who would love a moment to just sit back and sigh happily. It doesn’t mean you should completely leave out slower, less high-tension scenes because they provide a much needed break amidst the hyper-action of your novel—everything can’t be kept at a fevered pitch or else your reader will burn out and close the book.
But just because you have a slower scene doesn’t mean that nothing significant should happen then. Characters can, and should, sit back and discuss all that’s been happening and figure out what to do next (this is called a sequel scene, by the way).
So how do you know if a scene should be there or not? How do you know if you should remove a scene that you’ve written?
Easy. After you’ve written your book and sit down to read the whole bloody thing through, have a check list next to you. I have a table with the following headings: scene name, pov character, conflict, romance (yes/no), five senses (y/n), goal moving toward (this is the heroine’s internal goal or external goal/hero’s internal or external goal). With this I know exactly why that scene is there – and it could very well be for more than one purpose. The same scene could move both the hero and heroine toward their internal goals. With this, you’re forced to read through your book critically, analyzing each and every scene for purpose and ensuring that there’s enough conflict and good description to pull your reader into the story.
One last note: sex. I write romance and read a lot of it too. When writing a sex scene, remember that intimacy always changes things. It can be a good thing—the two protagonists expressing their love for each other; or it could be a bad thing—it was too early in the relationship or too late or exposed insecurities or whatever is appropriate to your story. But you can’t have your protagonists have sex and not have a purpose and something happen because of it. If you do, you’re probably writing porn, which has it’s place but should be labeled accordingly. Even in erotica, what makes a book erotica and not porn is the actual story there. If you’ve got a story and it’s important, then the sex has to mean something.
On that note, think about the book you’re writing. Does every scene, every bit of dialogue have a purpose? Is it moving your characters toward their goals?