There’s a grim ruthlessness out there in the writing world: pundits of all sorts, famous and obscure, are urging writers to approach their work with the shiny, stainless steel precision of a heart surgeon. IT MUST ADVANCE THE PLOT, OR CUT IT OUT is their basic message. Remember those British posters of the First World War that showed an icily stern Lord Kitchener pointing his index figure at the viewer to shame or intimidate them (I’ve never been quite sure which) into joining the British Army? It’s as though we have those posters staring coldly at us wherever we go nowadays, with the message being that “they” feel we need to excise every last word that isn’t certifiably integral in the most vital way to moving the plot along.
To be fair, this is an attitude that permeates our entire society at just about every level. Everything has to be done on the double, because we’re in a hurry to get to the end... of the story... of the phone conversation (for those who still bother to use their phones to actually talk to someone)... of the text exchange... of the movie... of the Netflix series... and on and on. But maybe it’s time to get a little counter cultural here with a question:
Why? Are we trying for the literary equivalent of a 100 meter dash, or do we want to provide an experience?
If the former, then Mercutio’s speech in Romeo and Juliet about Queen Mab, the queen of dreams, has got to go. It really doesn’t advance the plot. It’s a point where all but my most diligent scholars glaze over and instinctively reach for their cell phones before they remember that I’ll confiscate said devices.
Tom Bombadil in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has got to go. He doesn’t advance the plot --- which is tossing the Ring into a live volcano --- one smidgeon. (Peter Jackson already figured that out, so Tom is nowhere to be found in the film.)
And there are many, many other examples in literature of things that really don’t advance the story. So the question is, why are they there? Why were they allowed to remain there?
Well, the answer is easy: they may not advance the story, but they make the story.
First, texture makes a world. Are we looking at mere cardboard cutouts of characters and places and events, or are we looking at people and locations and happenings that are/could be every bit as real as the folks and things that go on around us each and every day?
And second, it’s not a race, people. We’re there to savour the story of our protagonist, and the people and places he or she interacts with. Now, that’s not to say that we write everything, and keep everything we write. Goodness, no. I’m all too aware of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch’s advice to “murder your darlings” (i.e. your words, all those soaring bits of prose you fell in love with as they leapt from the wellspring of your imagination onto the page). Nor should your story have the leisurely pace of a Victorian writer’s travel guide (unless you’re actually writing one). There’s a big difference between detail and turgidly bogged down.
I usually start out each writing session by looking at what I wrote last session, and I’m getting better and better at cutting out unnecessary verbiage when I do (I hardly ever weep anymore, for example). A good deal of what we write doesn’t need to remain in from first to final draft.
But texture… detail… (well-written, anyway)… that’s a different matter.
The Old Forest and Tom Bombadil is a great and magical bit of storytelling: winding their way cautiously through this shaggy, hoary old forest, the hobbits’ encounter and near demise with Old Man Willow, Tom’s extremely timely appearance and amazing abilities, his wife Goldberry, his tales, his second rescue of the hobbits when they stray too near the Barrow Downs… man, that is a great chapter (or two) in a great book. I don’t think we should be overly zealous to cut out things like that.
Give your characters time to stop and smell a frickin’ rose or two. It’s not all about getting past Go and collecting $200, you know.