There’s an expression that goes, “don’t miss the forest for the trees”. Basically, you don’t want to miss the overall story because of something insignificant. Of course, being a writer, I’m going to tie this into storytelling. 🙂 The forest is your story. The trees are elements that take place within the story.
The story is the main thing you’re dealing with when you’re working in genre fiction. I don’t care what genre you’re writing. It can be romance. It can be fantasy. It can be horror. It can be any genre you want. Your goal as a writer is to keep someone so wrapped up in the story that they have trouble putting the book down. If you insert things in your story that aren’t necessary to advance the plot in some way, you run the risk of losing your reader.
Let me provide an example of what I’m talking about:
There was a book by an author that took place in the BC era. The story was supposed to be about this woman who eventually becomes a leader and wins a major victory in battle. This story begins when this main character is a child. That is fine, but along the way, the author ended up writing pages and pages of about the character threshing wheat before she became an adult. It read like a how-to manual on threshing wheat. It had nothing to do with the character’s development into a warrior. I think the author was so excited about the things this author learned about threshing wheat that the author wanted to share it with the world. That would have been better left out of the book. The author could have shared this in a blog post or a newsletter, but it had no purpose in the story. Now, if the character had been learning how to yield a sword, then it would have been appropriate. At least then, we could see some character development.
Here are other examples I’ve read over the years:
Pointless conversations that have nothing to do with character development or the story. (Usually, this is a basic, “Hi, how are you doing.” “Oh, I’m doing fine.” “Yeah, me too. But I needed that thirty-minute shower first. You know, to get the day started off right.” “I hear you. The alarm almost didn’t wake me up. I pressed snooze twice before the cat jumped on my head to wake me up.” “How is Fluffy?” “Fluffy is great. She got a new collar.” “Oh, did she? What does it look like?” “It’s pink with a cute little silver bell.” “How adorable. Maybe I should get a cat.” “You should. They are the best pets to have. I can take you to the pet store next week.” “I’ll take you up on that offer. By the way, I’m sorry I’m running late in picking you up. I just went to get some coffee.” “Coffee? I love coffee. Where did you get it?” And on and on it goes until you skim the scene to get back to the plot. The plot, in this example, is about two friends who are on their way to the creepy forest where they will be hunted by psychos. We don’t care about this cat who never shows up again in the story, and we don’t care what kind of coffee they drink. There’s no need to devote pages of a story to mindless chatter like this, and yet, I seem to come across it quite a bit.)
The character spends pages looking over a map but never takes a trip. (Why spend all that time on the map if you never have a need for it? That map was a useless element in the story.)
Describing every single thing in a town when the character only needs to go to one or two places in this town. (Who cares if there’s a windmill, how it looks, or how it operates if the character never goes there during the story?)
Describing a battle in detail when the story is not about the war but is about a woman’s development toward independence and love. (If the woman had fought in the battle, you could make this detailed battle scene work, but the woman wasn’t a soldier. She was helping another woman give birth during the battle. Yes, mention the fighting going on and how she is reacting to it is acceptable, but we don’t need to know what street or store is catching on fire, how many men are falling over dead, or the specific orders the soldiers are giving each other. Unless those soldiers are going to come in and pose a threat, we don’t need to know all these details.)
Here’s a good rule of thumb for good storytelling:
If it advances the plot, put it in. If it doesn’t advance the plot, leave it out.
If you put these non-essential elements in, you risk losing your reader. I realize there’s going to be some reader out there who will love all of the teeny-tiny details of some historical place or event, but most readers just want the story.
The story is your focus, and the characters are the way you will advance the story.
Only bring things into focus if they have something to do with the advancement of the story. I’ll give some examples below:
1. You want to reveal something about the character.
a. Say you have a character who is terrified of some kind of plant, but this character will have to go through a jungle to save his family. In that case, bring that terrifying plant into the story before the character runs off to the jungle. Show this character’s reaction to this plant when the character is in a safe environment. Then when he comes across this plant in the jungle, the stakes will be high when he is trying to save his family.
b. Another character example could be a character who notices little details others miss in order to solve homicide cases. In this case, the character would pick up on little things here and there in a room. The fact that this character is detecting these things prove this character is good at their job. It also shows the reader that these little things the character notices are clues, and the reader can use these clues to see if they can solve the crime before the big reveal.
2. You want to give hints that something in the setting will play a pivotal role later on in the story.
a. On the surface, your town might appear normal, but let’s say there are too many cats, and these cats end up being part of the conflict. You want to mention the cats early in the story. Mention all the trees they’re lurking in. Mention how they’re running across the street. Mention one cat in particular if it ends up playing a bigger role than the other cats later on in the story. You’re using these cats to build suspense, and suspense does wonders for advancing the plot.
b. If the story is about surviving a tornado, the character will need to know where he can hide when a tornado comes along in the story. Where is the storm cellar in this town? Where is the barn? Where is the general store where the character will need to find a loved one? In this case, we would need to know some of the layout of this town in advance.
c. Let’s say your villain loves a certain color or object. This color or object can be instrumental in the hero discovering the villain’s identity later in the story. Lay down little clues where this color or object pops up early in the story. For example, let’s say the villain likes music boxes. You can have a music box show up at a home the hero is visiting. The hero notices the music box and might even listen to the music. But the hero doesn’t give the music box any more thought until it’s time to track the villain down.
Writing a tight story essentially means you remove the excess stuff that doesn’t advance your plot. If you need to write non-essentials to create your story, you can still use those. Just remove them from the story and use them for blog posts, newsletters, in an “extra” section on your website, or in the back matter of your book. You can still use these if you want. I just don’t recommend using them in the story itself.