Double Dutytriple Duty

Your story and you, the author, should never be doing only one thing at a time. Only setting scene (describing setting), for example. You never want the reader to be sitting around waiting for you to set things up so the story can begin. Set scene, OK, but at the same time you can be revealing character. We get character if the setting has meaning for the character, if the character is affected by it, if he has strong feelings about it. The setting should be a necessary element of the story, and the character should be reacting to it in a revealing way.

In good storytelling, everything has a purpose. Everything contributes. Nothing is just there. Nothing is neutral. Nothing is along for the ride. The old writing rule is: If it's not helping, it's hurting. Now, this is art, not science. So, you have some latitude—a lot in fact. If you can thrill us with brilliant, poetic description for no other purpose than the beauty and pleasure of it, you may pull it off.

Also, if something pops up on the page that you like, that feels right, that appeals to you, but you have no idea why it's there, leave it. If you put it in, it may have a connection that you don't see at the moment. The thing to do is to work on making it a necessary part of the story. When you do that, you challenge your inventiveness and often create a deeper and richer story. The last thing you do is pull something out that you like just because it doesn't fit. In the end, you may cut it, but only after trying your best to make it work. That's what fiction is about—relating things that aren't always related. In a good story, everything relates to everything else because that author has made them relate.

You should be doing at least two things at all times. If you have a character going to a cocktail party, he can't be neutral about it. He can't be going just because you're in the mood to create a cocktail party. The character has to have strong feelings about cocktail parties.

He needs to hate cocktail parties because he feels so out of it or because he's an alcoholic and afraid he'll take a drink. You need to be giving us cocktails and revealing character at the same time—double duty.

But for the same effort you can be doing triple duty. The third thing you could, and should, be doing is moving plot. So, the character has to go to the cocktail party, which he hates, but he has to go to try to find his brother-in-law, who can't stand him, and beg him to loan him a thousand dollars so he can pay the bookie who's coming to collect his money or break the character's legs at eight o'clock. This way, he's on a mission. He has an objective. He's acting to overcome an obstacle. He has a need to be at the party. If he doesn't need to be there, he shouldn't be there.

So, triple duty—setting scene, revealing character, moving plot—is what we work for. And note how this example contains the story elements—want (one thousand dollars), obstacle (brother-in-law), action (trying to convince him to loan the money)—as every scene must. It will have a scene resolution (he gets the money or is refused) before it's over.

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