Tight writing II

Another problem with “writing as tightness” is that it would prevent the writer from surprising the reader. This is because, if writers only included vital details, eventually readers would figure out that every detail is vital. This would let them anticipate things that were supposed to be surprises.

An example: Suppose that in the last ten pages of your novel, it turns out to be vital that the hero knows how to speak Russian. You must set this up earlier in the novel to avoid a deux ex machina, so on page 30 you mention that when he was in college, your hero took Russian language classes. Now your readers know that this will be vital later, because they know you only include vital details. Thus they anticipate the rabbit you were hoping to pull out of the hat later. In contrast, suppose you’re not a devotee of the “only vital stuff” theory. When you mention that your hero took Russian language classes, you also mention that he took a classes in English Lit, Music Appreciation, etc., and that when he was in college his favorite beer was Imperial Stout. Because you’ve hidden the essential in the inessential, the reader cannot anticipate your surprise.

One might respond, “But then all that other stuff is essential: It’s essential for surprising the reader.” Certainly. But that’s different from being essential to the plot. This is the whole point: Things that aren’t essential for the plot may be essential for other important elements of the novel. I could tell the same story actually writing on page 30, “By the way, reader, at the end the main conflict is resolved due to the fact that the hero knows Russian.” Yes, it would be the same plot, but it would be a very different novel. It certainly would be a different experience for the reader, who would be denied suspense or surprise.

Tight writing

Writers frequently admonish other writers and aspiring writers to omit everything that doesn’t advance the story.  This is bad advice, as one can see by imagining what would happen if anyone ever actually followed it:  Every novel would be a half page of bullet points.

Take Gone With the Wind.  Margaret Mitchell was so wordy!  The novel would have been better if she had written this:

• It is 1861 in Georgia, USA.  A young woman, Scarlett, is in love with Ashley.  (Ashley is a man; this isn’t “hot girl-on-girl action!”  More’s the pity.)
• Ashley loves her but they can’t hook up because he’s engaged to marry someone else.
• The Civil War starts, disrupting everything. Scarlett goes to Atlanta and Ashley goes off to fight the Yankees.
• A scoundrel named Rhett Butler occasionally bumps into Scarlett in Atlanta.
• Scarlett has romantic feelings for Ashley and Rhett (though she takes a long time to admit to herself that she feels anything other than annoyance for Rhett).
• The Union forces invade Atlanta and Rhett helps Scarlett escape.
• Scarlett returns to the plantation where she was raised and through sheer determination ekes out a hardscrabble living.
• She marries Rhett Butler, but she treats him poorly and he leaves her.
• Scarlett, the consummate survivor, faces the future knowing that it will be hard but that she will abide.

There!  So much better than that redundant pleonastic bundle of excessive surplusage that is the original version!  It hits all the crucial plot points, while taking up less than a page.  Imagine how much lower the publisher’s printing costs would have been if they had pared it down to that.  Didn’t Mitchell have an editor?

Ok, sarcasm off.  What’s stupid about this approach?  Well, what’s stupid is this:
The point of telling a story is… telling a story.  Presenting a list of bullet points is not telling a story.  Also, the purpose of telling a story is, above all else, entertainment, that is, the pleasure of the reader.  Telling a story is entertaining (if it’s done well).  The only way to make a list of bullet points entertaining is to include a reference to hot girl-on-girl action.

A good example of a writer who ignores the silly advice to axe everything that doesn’t advance the plot is Neal Stephenson.  Stephenson includes anything and everything that pops into his little head, provided it’s entertaining.  For Stephenson, a plot is merely a structure upon which to hang entertainment.  And it’s a good thing, too, or we’d miss Jack Shaftoe’s syphilis-induced hallucinations of singing skeletons (Quicksilver), a description of a witch’s sabbat that our hero blunders into (Quicksilver), and a duel at dawn, carried out with spare cannons from a warship (The System of the World).  We also occasionally get some beautiful prose, as when a man enters a church in Quicksilver and the sun shining through the stained glass windows turns them into “a matrix of burning diamonds.” Story-wise, do we actually need singing skeletons or a matrix of burning diamonds?  No.  But they make these works more enjoyable, which is the point.

Stephenson is something of a maximalist, and I am not suggesting that most authors should try to emulate him.  The point is, you can pull off a hell of a lot of digressions from the main thread, as long as you pull them off with pizzaz.