A couple of thoughts now that I’ve read the article.

Disclaimer: what follows is in no way intended to disparage genre literature, nor its writers and readers. It’s nothing more than my observations and my opinions based on them. I can’t cite chapter and verse from MFA programs or writing coaches/instructors, but I don’t think I have to. Your mileage may vary.

The fact that the author of the article teaches “romance writing” is significant. In most genre writing “story” is nearly synonymous with “action.” The “story” is “events” or “stuff that happens” and (not to put too fine a point on it) genre readers tend, on the whole,

* not to want to figure things out, and
* not to want to be distracted by things that are not obviously “events” i.e. moving the plot.

It’s rather like listening to a verbally adept 8 or 9 year old recounting his or her experience of the latest superhero movie. “So then they went over there and the guy says and she says and then they left and found five dollars so they got cokes…”

And yes, it’s quite true that in a genre piece the threshold of TMI is pretty low. The focus is after all on “the action.” But there’s a catch – in a genre piece the author must pay attention to the level of details of the type that establish and support the genre. If it’s a historical novel, it needs to provide (and fairly quickly and economically) the time & place & circumstances (within the T&P) of the protagonist and rest of the dramatis personae. And the details provided really need to be accurate, nobody kvetches about anachronism or faulty details than historical fans and SciFi fans. And it’s very tricky to select the right level of detail (for all I know there’s a handbook out there somewhere in the rafts of text written about how to write fiction) to get the reader positioned correctly but not obstruct “the action.”

On the other hand, there’s “not-genre” fiction. The point in most “not-genre” fiction is (“missing,” many genre fans & writers might say) as far as I can tell, is to put the reader in the picture in such a way that he or she doesn’t get bored with too much “real life bullshit” and yet still catches on to what it means to be the particular human being portrayed, and that the portrayal of the life and lives is acceptable as a reasonable portrayal of a possible life within our experience of reality.

One needs to be careful, for example, with mundane details of everyday life, because while it’s true that 90% of most lives consists of mundane bullshit, we must remember that most readers of fiction are reading fiction precisely to escape that mundane bullshit. So we need to develop a shorthand, allusive way of indicating the preponderance of mundane boring bullshit without boring the reader.

Putting the reader “there” is my goal. Looking over the protagonist’s shoulder, or peering out through the narrator’s eyes. Some details are telling. Some are not, but the fact is that all details are telling to some degree, and it’s really hard to choose which ones to omit, not because they’re “unnecessary,” and because “the story won’t change” without them (ya never know, it might change 100 pages hence in some unforeseen way, and then you’re screwed & have to go back and put them in) but because the reader MIGHT get bored by them, and won’t know that they’re not there. (There are some readers who WILL want to know “So how did Ralph get from his bedroom to the kitchen?” – and they really do mean step-by-step. There’s probably no way to accommodate everyone’s threshold.)

DQ

On Sep 13, 2019, at 10:57 PM, Tomek Jankowski <tomek.e.jankowski> wrote:

Thanks for sharing, Cathy. I agree with the basic premise — that everything in a story should be there for a reason, that every character, object and action should have to earn its place in the story, so to speak, by carrying the storyline further in some way.

But, with that said, I don’t think there’s a science to it. For instance, in the very first example they give:

“Sally went to the store. She bought a gallon of milk. She returned home to find her front door standing open and all her belongings scattered across the living room floor.”

This paragraph depicts a fictional scenario from an unwritten book; however, it’s a scene that we’ve all seen before. Where does the real action begin? When Sally discovers her home has been vandalized. Do the readers really need to know where Sally was and what she bought? Does it help to set the scene?

I would argue the milk in this scene does add to the story, because the milk for me portrays the mundane nature of what Sally was doing — just quick running to the local corner store to get something — and that she expected to be back shortly. That helps add to the drama of her arriving home to find her home in a shambles. It’s not like she had gone on vacation for two weeks and returned to a burgled home.

So it’s just to say that while we need to be conscious of all this while we’re writing, there isn’t a set standard one can adhere to for compliance. And as any one who has endured one of our critique sessions knows, any two people can read a scene and come away with completely different reactions, and we’ve had some knock-down, drag-out arguments over things like whether the milk adds to the scene.

I get that articles/blog posts like this feel the need to go the extra mile to make a point and have to come up with some snappy system or acronym, but I was reminded while reading this of an early 20th century business concept that has made many a worker’s life miserable: Taylorism. Taylor believed in absolute efficiency on the factory floor, and so he would study a worker doing their job and carefully note every movement that had to take place, and then script out how that job could be performed with the fewest number of movements — and this means forearm movements, bicep movements, torso, etc. Taylor thought of workers as ignorant peasants and considered them replaceable, and so to minimize the impact of constant overturn, he used his method to train each worker in exactly the precise movements required for the job, and expected them to adhere exactly. (Carpal tunnel and tennis elbow weren’t diagnosed yet.) In essence, Taylor did not like people, and did his best to turn them into machines. He would be utterly overjoyed at today’s massive wave of automation that is replacing workers. Short video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vNfy_AHG-MU

A bit extreme, but I sometimes get the feeling from articles like this that they’re trying to do the same, reduce writing to a standardized, templated exercise. Again, I agree with the basic message of this article, just would counter that if writing a story were so simple…..

Tomek

On Thu, Sep 12, 2019 at 10:13 AM Cathy M <figchance> wrote:

While there is no hard and fast way to edit down stories, I thought this piece contained some helpful tips.

https://www.writermag.com/improve-your-writing/fiction/unnecessary-action-in-fiction/