Sunday, April 3, 2016

Don’t Name That Donkey

You know you want to. Perhaps you already have. Jenny or Jack, Don or Danielle, you worked hard to imagine every aspect of this scene. How big is the pasture, how decrepit the barn, how blue the sky, how scratchy the straw. As a novelist, it’s your job to visualize all that. But that’s not your primary job. What is? Deciding what distracts and cutting it.

So. If Donatello merely shakes off flies rather than motivating or executing the upcoming murder, we don’t care that he prefers clover to alfalfa. And he doesn’t need a name.

Tip: The fact that you created or discovered it doesn’t mean that you should include it.

Why not omit all the extraneous material that clogs novels? Here’s a start:

~ Heaps of adjectives.
            Do you really need more than one? If it’s the right one?

~ Personal memories.
            Does this matter to the story, or only to you?

~ Fun facts.
            Do they make your novel more fun—or less?

~ Repetition.
            Do readers really want watch another character learn what readers already know?

Lack of focus blurs narrative—any kind of narrative. Aristotle laid this down in The Poetics, where he said that fiction imitates reality, but not exactly. 

That’s because story is orderly rather than chaotic; it transforms random details into a credible and causal pattern that an audience can follow. Excessive or irrelevant detail, however fascinating, interferes.  Unless specifics add tension or clarify causality, they actually subtract.

In an intriguing twist, playwright/actor Sean Grennan served on a jury and offered attorneys advice on how narrative engages and persuades. Here’s an excerpt from “Unsolicited Advice,” published in The American Bar Association Journal:

If your practice involves talking to a jury, then your profession is storytelling….Rule # 1: (Less is more. (See also: Try not to bore us.)… In good storytelling, anything that’s not your friend is your enemy, just like Thanksgiving with your family.
Take that wonderful, genius, world-changing, vivid detail you’ve come up with, and if it is a digression, delete it. Anything that slows or distracts or confuses is a problem.

Like the name of that donkey. Make your case. Delete clutter. Let your primary characters breathe and act—without Darcy the darling, dappled, dimple-cheeked, dreamy, drama queen.

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