During the past few months, I was privileged to read the first chapters of many unpublished novels and the critiques other readers left. One thing that interested me was how often readers would mention that a certain episode didn’t fit and should be taken out, and the writer would counter that it was necessary to the story. Can’t argue with that, I suppose, since only the writer knows what he or she intended. But it made me wonder why readers don’t see the same thing in published books. Do we just assume because it’s been published that everything fits? Do we have a different set of rules for published and non-published works?
Last night the answer came to me. It’s not so much that we’re looking for things to pick at in a work we’re critiquing. (Is that even a word? I’ve used it so much that I no longer know.) It’s that good authors know how make every episode in their novel do double duty. If has to be in there to set up a later episode or scene, it must also have a reason for being in there now. If a character places a gun in an unlocked desk drawer to make it available for a murder in a later scene, for example, the character must be a reason for putting the gun in the drawer and not locking it. Perhaps he’s a cop and was cleaning it. So what could have been so terrible that he would forget his training and toss it in an unlocked drawer? Maybe one of his kids is trying to drown the other in the bathtub. A skilled author can make the gun in the unlocked drawer seem so reasonable and natural that readers forget it’s there until someone finds it and shoots it. The reverse is also true. If there is a gun in an unlocked drawer at the beginning, someone must use it in the end.
So, to make your novel tight and keep from jarring your readers out of the story because something doesn’t fit, make certain that everything has two reasons for being there: a reason for now and a reason for later.
April 22, 2008 at 1:03 pm
I completely agree with this. I’ve also discovered that you can do this without necessarily having planned beforehand. Often when I’m stuck at a later point in the story all I have to do is look back to the early part of the story and little details that served one function back then can often be made to serve another funtion later. For instance, I needed a cop to hesitate to risk harm to a hostage when trying to rescue her. I discovered this would be strongest if the cop at the scene was the hostage’s boyfriend. I’d mentioned him earlier (and their relationship) in an offhand way when discussing something else. I didn’t expect him to play a real part in the story. Now he does. Another character is mentioned to have health problems that require using an oxygen tank at home. At first it’s just a fact that also plays into explaining some family dynamics and characterization. Later the oxygen tank becomes integral to the character’s murder.
April 22, 2008 at 6:33 pm
For me, that’s the fun of writing, and why the second half of a novel is so much easier to write than the first — less thinking. The solutions to problems arising in the second half can often be found in the first half. Your book will be so much stronger for those connections, and it will seem inevitable, as if you planned out every single detail.
Sounds like an interesting story.