Don’t Skin the Cat! :

Better ways to solve a story problem

If you’re getting feedback from critiquers, sooner or later you’ll be told that something in your story isn’t working and you should probably cut it. But should you? The answer to that is a solid, definite, maybe. Sometimes you can follow Tim Gunn’s famous advice and “Make it work!” And sometimes, you may need to cut something out. But before you commit to story surgery, particularly if some part of your heart is rebelling, consider these examples from my own experience, and that of some writing friends.

One scene in the story feels tacked on. When my critique group read one of my recent books, they said that the action in one chapter felt as if it didn’t fit with the rest of the plot, as if it had only been added to show Michael using magic. (Which was, in fact, the case.) They advised me to cut it, and show Michael using magic in some way that fit in with the rest of the plot. And since they were exactly right about how that chapter came to be, I tried very hard to come up with another idea. I even came up with one…and then my subconscious shut down my brain, in the way it does when it’s trying to tell me something. And it kept my brain shut down for the better part of a week, until I realized that instead of cutting that scene, and working in the new one I’d devised (which would have needed at least three more new chapters to support it) I could make my original chapter work if I simply set it up better. I created a situation earlier in the story that made it necessary for Michael to do what he does. This in turn made the action in my problem chapter an obstacle the protagonist is forced to overcome, instead of something he volunteers to do. It also needed to have consequences that reached out into the rest of the plot. But doing all of that was a lot easier, and more satisfying, than cutting one chapter and trying to work a four chapter subplot into my already fairly dense storyline.

One character is out of balance with the others. This usually occurs when a writer has two or more protagonists. The trickiest part of having multiple POV characters is that they all need to have nearly the same weight and impact in the story. If one is slighter than the others, less important to the plot, or has a lesser character arc, then he won’t “fit.” Critiquers will tell you, “You know, you could cut that person.” And you could, but the alternative is to build up that weaker character. Find some way to make him more important to the plot, to make him essential to the story’s climax. Figure out something important you can take from him, so he has to struggle to get it back. Give him some flaw that blows up the other protagonists’ efforts, so he has to overcome that flaw and redeem himself for the team to win. Think up something that’s incredibly precious to him, that he has to give up forever to make the climax of the story come out right, and make that sacrifice moving and memorable. If you do even one of those things, you can probably keep your character. He might even become the reader’s favorite!

Some aspect of the story setting/character background doesn’t impact the plot. A high school girl is trying to get in with the popular kids, and one of the details of her background that hinders her efforts is that her mother is an ardent and outspoken feminist. Instead of leaving that detail alone and irrelevant to your storyline (and therefore in danger of getting the axe) have the girl discover that her only hope of achieving popularity is to become a cheerleader—a role her mother regards as “gender treason.” When our heroine tentatively reveals this desire to her mother, Mom starts movement to ban cheerleading throughout the school district—maybe the state! The heroine has to pretend her afternoon practices are meetings of the chess club. When she starts sneaking into games in disguise, past feminist protesters led by her own mother, no reader will be thinking that her mother’s feminism is irrelevant.

A sub-plot doesn’t tie into the main plot. Subplots can enrich your story in many wondrous ways—but unless they tie into the main storyline at some point, they’re also prime candidates for surgery. Frequently when this happens, the subplot deals with the protagonist’s personal life, and the primary plot deals with something that’s more external. Maybe your heroine’s main problem is solving a mystery, and she’s also having trouble with her mother’s desire to make her a star, or her boyfriend’s attracted to another girl. If your subplots don’t impact the mystery in some way, critiquers may tell you, “that subplot was fun, but it didn’t seem important or necessary. But what if the girl who’s stealing the protagonist’s boyfriend is also the villain who’s stealing her classmates’ identities? And when the heroine first tries to expose her, everyone believes that she’s accusing the villain because she’s jealous, and the boyfriend dumps her for the villain because of it? Or say that the mystery is why some nice old man next door committed suicide…and it turns out that the reason her ambitious mother is insisting the protagonist star in that commercial is because Mother needs money to pay off a blackmailer…the same blackmailer whose demands forced the neighbor to kill himself. If you tie subplots into the main plot, instead of being unnecessary distractions, they add richness and complexity to your novel—and no one would dream of asking you to cut them.

Most first drafts have something in them that you can and should excise. Creating sentences, paragraphs, even occasional scenes that actually are extraneous is a normal part of the writing processes. But when it comes to the larger parts of your story, if someone recommends surgery, ask them to help you come up with ways to make that seemingly unnecessary piece essential and meaningful instead. Because my experience is that your story usually becomes stronger if you turn down your inner surgeon, and channel your inner Tim Gunn instead—and you can almost always “Make it work!”

Spring 2013

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