Sharpening Her Scythe

Is this what Thoreau had in mind? (Photo credit: Alexandre Dulaunoy)

Stories are not life.

Life is complicated. Life is messy. Life throws utterly random shit at you at utterly random times.

And, in their best form, stories should mirror life. But not all of it. You’re presenting a streamlined version. Life stripped to its essentials as required by the story. In real life, you need to go to the bathroom several times a day. You scratch. You sneeze. You wonder vaguely about life. In a story, you don’t need all that. Some of it, sure, as the occasion requires. But no one wants to read about the protagonist brushing her teeth unless it is in some way essential to the scene. Mundanity and randomness are fine if you’re making a point of it. But they can quickly kill a story and its pace.

You need to take away some of the randomness for the sake of coherence. Otherwise the hero might die halfway through act two because he ate a bad sandwich en route to the bad guy and consequently shit his guts out in a public toilet. The end. Great for absurdists, but unless that’s your genre, steer clear.

This is not to say that characters can’t be complex. They can and should, because people are. But you’ll need to walk that line between realism and fiction. General rule is that inexperienced writers put in far more than they need.* Things never need to be as complicated as you think. You can cut some of that shit without losing anything but filler and confusion.

Put in the shortest possible form: complications are for characters, not writers. By all means, throw complications at them. That’s what they’re for. Just keep an eye on the final form and trim as necessary. You’ll think you’re losing important stuff, but you’re not. You’re just stripping away the gristle and dangly bits.

Cut. Clean. Sharpen. When your story hits someone like an icepick between the eyes, you’ll be glad you did.

*And some experienced writers make this mistake, too.

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