I’ve been doing a lot of painting lately, which is all well and good, but I really need to be sure to squeeze in time for writing. For me, the writing and the art are equally important. I need to find a better way of organizing my days.
Betsy was kind enough to contribute the next topic in our story series.
Discerning between what is necessary exposition and what is fluff. Basically, how to get the story moving quickly.
Michael presented a similar topic – knowing whether or not parts in the story are helping to forward the plot – so I’m going to address them in the same post.
The key thing here is to understand that everything that appears or happens in your story needs to have a reason. It can’t be an arbitrary choice. “Oh, I just threw that in because it’s cool.”
It’s perfectly fine for that cool thing to exist in your story if it has a reason for existing.
In truth, the answer to this one is pretty easy. If it has a purpose, then it’s necessary. But I know it can be difficult to discern what has purpose and what doesn’t. This is why I started this series by talking about story problems and solutions. It helps to have the foundation in place before you start laying in the bricks.
To determine whether an element is necessary or whether you can do without it, ask yourself these questions:
- Is this crucial to establishing the character(s)?
- Is this new information, or is it repeated somewhere else?
- Is the information delivered in the most efficient way possible?
- Does the scene help set a particular mood?
- Is it crucial to the development of the character(s)?
- Will the audience understand what’s going on if I remove this element?
At times, the problem isn’t even that a part of the story is unnecessary, but that it occurs in the wrong place, or moves too slowly. Is there a way to change the delivery of this information to help propel the story rather than hinder it?
Michael inquired about this topic in relation to a story he’s working on. Without giving the story away, I’m just going to quote the significant bit:
It opens with the main kid getting upset about losing a video game. He then breaks the game out of rage … I was wondering how necessary developing this character is to the overall story or if I should just do it with dialogue later on.
Character development is always necessary. If your scene is giving us vital information about a character, it’s a keeper. But we don’t need to know every detail of a character, just the important ones. In this case, the scene is telling us that the kid is spoiled (and possibly that he has aggression issues). Do we need to know that the boy is spoiled? How does it come into play later?
You do have the choice of doing this through actions or through dialogue. They always say “show, don’t tell,” and personally I always hear this and think WTF does that mean?? Seriously, I have to shut down all my electronics, go sit in a dark corner, and really puzzle my way through this concept in solitude. I mean, how do you know when you’re “showing” and when you’re “telling?” Certainly, having the boy’s mom tell another character, “My little Richard is rather spoiled,” would be “telling.” But dialogue can be used quite cleverly to establish character. Take the movie Anna Karenina. The titular character doesn’t show up until nearly ten minutes into the film. We’re introduced to her through dialogue.
Another example I love is Ocean’s Eleven (I just caught a bit of it on the TV so it’s fresh in my mind). This movie has some of the best banter I’ve ever seen… and the best part about it is how the banter helps establish each character. Watch the scene between Danny Ocean and Tess in the restaurant. Now that’s dialogue that “shows.”
You want your story to be lean, but you don’t want it to be too lean. You don’t need to cut away all the fat – a little bit of fat is good. If your story moves too fast or is too intense, it wears the audience out, and you’ll lose them. Your story needs to breathe now and then.
And sometimes, the fat is just plain fun. This is especially true in comedy. Take a look at Jason Figliozzi’s Snack Attack.
The beginning is kind of slow, huh? Not a whole lot is going on. But what is going on is important. For one, the opening frames give us plenty of time to appreciate the caveman’s situation. He lives in a barren desert. This setting is not arbitrary. The empty desert efficiently gives us a lot of information about the caveman’s predicament.
Then we have that moment where the caveman is digging around in a little skull. This is important character building. We learn 1) our caveman is hungry (see why that barren desert is so important?), and 2) he’s a liiiittle bit dumb. Over the next two minutes, we get to see just how dumb this guy really is.
Now, my favorite part of this film is from 2:20 to 2:30. I die every single time I see it. When I think of “fat,” I think of that moment. But it’s good fat! It’s a hilarious, well-timed beat, and, just as significant, it’s communicating important information. After all that struggle, the caveman is finally getting what he wants. He’s taking time to savor the moment, and we savor the moment along with him.
You want to leave a little bit of fat, and you also want to be sure you’re not cutting into the muscle. As you’re looking for fluff to get rid of, be sure what you think is fluff isn’t actually essential to the story. Does it have a reason for existing? If the scene is down time you’re afraid of losing because the story’s moving too fast, well, even those moments can be given meaning.
Start at the beginning. And when you come to the end… stop.
One final tidbit. Betsy’s question asks specifically how to get the story moving quickly. The quickest way to do that is to start where the true story begins. Now, you definitely need to set up the story, but you don’t want to spend a great deal of time on setup. Consider this. Your story is a significant moment in time. Your character’s particular circumstances, occurring in a certain location and a certain time, have created an extraordinary moment that your character has never before experienced and may never experience again. You don’t need to start the story the night before everything changes. That’s backstory. You don’t have time for that, and frankly, we don’t really care. It’s the moment all the crap hits the fan that we really want to see.
Where does the inciting incident of your story come in? It should be roughly at the 10% or 15% mark. If it’s halfway into the story, then you’ve got a bit of trimming to do.
I’ve got a juicy topic for next time: tying events together. Stay tuned!
Ocean’s Eleven image from imdb.com.