Like many Americans and Brits, last Sunday I tuned in to “Downton Abbey” with anticipatory pleasure. And don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it. But I also sensed two issues I’d never noticed before, both relevant to the craft of the novel.
The first is self-consciousness. Who knows what the writers or cast actually think, but it almost seems as if concern about rivaling past performance swallowed the freshness and vitality of past seasons. This kind of pressure often surfaces when you let yourself worry if you’ll ever outdo the success of the last great season, scene, or sentence.
Once you enter “worry” mode, you might just decide that the solution is to add more. More of what? Why not everything? This can generate a deluge of detail, sub-plots, minor characters, imagery—everything but the kitchen sink, and if you’re desperate enough, maybe that, too. Here’s the danger:
Tip: Blurred focus makes for perilous pace.
That’s true not only for scenes but also individual sentences. The too-much-of-everything
syndrome can generate a painful irony: Clutter feels simultaneously frantic and tedious, hectic and monotonous. How do you solve this?
· Remind yourself that for most writers, early drafts don’t start out great. But if they’ve been great before, they will be again. Then you’ll have the confidence to streamline.
· Streamline not by offering tons of everything, but one or two or maybe three additions that really work, whether it’s a detail, sub-plot, image, or clause.
· Emphasize what matters. That sounds easy, but if you want readers to grasp significance, you must first identify it yourself. That can be less obvious than you imagine.
· Finally, offer an uncluttered view of what you want readers to see. That means you’ll have to cut. And that’s okay. Because “Downton Abbey” acquired the fame it enjoys by doing lots of things right. That means it’s highly likely that it will do most things right again. Guess what? So will you.