Foot off the Gas: Fiction Between Point A and B
No, this isn’t the second part of my previous post. I’ll get to that next week. Before I get to that, though, I wanted to touch on another subject that’s been on my mind lately. When an idea for a novel pops into our minds, the first thing we like to do is flesh out a few major plot points, which is fine, but it can become a problem when we race our characters from one place to the next simply because that’s where the outline demands they go.
You’ve read a novel like this, and chances are good that you can name it off the top of your head. You can recognize these because the story is jumpy. It spends about 80% of the time telling, and 20% showing, if they even get that far. Generally, the “showing” sections are restricted to clichés. Even the characters feel contrived. Why? Because we’ve got a darn good story, and we’re eager to get from one place to the next. We’re convinced that the plot is strong enough to stand on it’s own. For commercial fiction, this may be the case. But these novels are seldom the ones that last. Very few become something greater than the sum of their parts. They do not endure in the market or our minds. A cool plot point is only cool for a minute.
The heart of the fiction really exists between points A and B. Keep your plot points, just remember that there is a journey between each. Don’t cheat your reader out of these important aspects of the story. It is important to note, however, that this can easily be misunderstood. Alfred Hitchcock maintained that a good story was, “life, with all the dull parts taken out.” And aren’t the parts between major plot points dull?
At least they shouldn’t be. If they are, it’s likely because we’re in too big of a rush to get our characters from point to point. We forget to discover the journey, to find the excitement in things that may otherwise seem mundane. A gifted writer can take the dull parts and make them exciting. A lazy writer skips important chances to develop character and setting in a mad dash to finish what ends up being little more than a stiff outline of a story. Sure, a body might be able to function without skin (at least for a bit), but it’s pretty freaky to look at.
In your story, remember to slow the journey down. Put the skin on your characters, the plaster on the buildings of their cities. Give them fingernails and toenails. Heck, give them obnoxious nose hair. These are the details that persist long after the last page is read.
I don’t mean to imply that you can’t write from an outline. I know several writers who do so, and are very good at it. Just ensure that you’re fully realizing the outline, and that you give your characters license to deviate from the plan as necessary. Without that freedom, readers will never experience the minutiae of the paramount moments that are essential to an enduring story.