What happens when you overthink your storyworld so much that your novel is filled with thousands of irrelevant details and your story gets lost?
Sam posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Hi Randy,My name’s Sam. My problem right now is that i have seriously overthaught my story. I dream it, daydream it and effectively live in it from time to time. this means that when it comes down to writing, my story is full of incredibly boring details that no-one really wants to read.
Typically, my chapters end up being 1/5 interesting, 1/5 plot important, and 3/5 of solid, useless details that are important for the imagination, but not to the story.
My question is, How do you counteract the cumalative mind-numbing effects of incredible detail, without compramising the integritory of the story, and ‘putting danger around every corner’ to compensate. how do you make sure that youve said everything important and nessisary, without going overboard?
Ive made the mistake of dreaming up a whole new alien world, with new sights, smells, even the fruit. i want to explain the new world and all its glory, but i dont want to make it boring.
Randy sez: First of all, you’re doing things right by thinking about your Storyworld in Xtreme depth. Most of the novelists I know do that. We may be sick, sick people, living in our own little universes, but that’s what novelists do.
Now, your question, Sam, is how to keep that from being boring.
The solution is one I heard in the very first critique group that I ever attended. One of the critiquers quoted a very famous line from a very famous author (but nobody seems to agree on exactly who that famous author was): “A story is just like real life with all the boring parts taken out.”
And my immediate response when I got whacked over the head with this comment was: “Are you trying to tell me something? Which parts of my story are boring?”
I didn’t get an answer to my question, and I left the meeting that night feeling rather miffed. If somebody is going to tell me there’s something wrong with my story, they at least ought to tell me what it is.
I now know the answer, and by a grand coincidence, it’s found in my most recent blog, where Jonathan asked whether a story really needs conflict.
My answer was yes, a story really needs conflict, because that’s part of the definition of a story.
The reason is simple: Conflict is interesting. Conflict means that some character wants something that he or she can’t have. When you read about a character like that, you either want the character to get it, or you don’t want them to do so. Either way, you want to read on to find out what happens.
So the “boring parts of the story” are those that don’t have anything to do with the conflict. The “interesting parts” are those that contribute most directly to the conflict.
Sam, you’ve cooked up an incredibly detailed Storyworld. That’s Job 1 for the novelist. Job 2 is to only show those parts of the Storyworld that relate to the conflict.
That’s your yardstick with everything you show in your Storyworld. The more a detail is part of the conflict, the more time you can spend showing it.
Does this mean you can’t ever show any other details at all? No, of course not. Those details add texture to the story. But if you’ve got 1000 details you could use for that pesky story texture, and if five of those details are critical to the conflict, then show at least those five — and maybe five others that aren’t critical but which you just want to show.
That might be a good rule of thumb for a novelist: For every detail you add in that’s unrelated to the conflict, show at least one detail that is.
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Is that a reasonable way to write a story? Leave a comment and say your say!
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.
Blog of the Day: Meredith Efken had a couple of good blog posts yesterday and today on her Fiction Fixit Shop blog in response to questions posted here on my site. Meredith is my freelance editor and is helping me catch up on the incredible backlog of questions I’ve got. Today, she talks about dual protagonists in a novel. Yesterday, she answered the question of whether the Scene/Sequel structure needs to apply to the antagonist in a novel.