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February 22, 2021

What to Put in Your Story (and What Not To)

I have been contemplating writing or filming a piece on “Why I (Book) Blog”, which may at some point be forthcoming, but the long and the short of it is, I find it useful to analyze stories. Note, stories, not books. As you’ll know from my Rant Rave Reviews to my four-part series on different mediums of fiction, I consider books, movies, video games, and so on to all hold value in terms of narrative structure and choice.

Despite their differences, all stories have one thing in common: someone wrote them. Which means that someone, or someones, chose what to put in them and what not to put in them. This might seem obvious, but the import of this fact seems to allude many an amateur writer and book critic. Particularly when talking shop, writers seem so focused on what taboos to avoid or what structures to follow that they forget the most basic question: what should go in the story? And its mirror image, what can be left out.

If this all seems opaque, let me illustrate with some examples.


3rd Person Omniscient: In Frame and In Focus

Someone on Twitter asked if, when writing 3rd person omniscient, it would be cheating to have a twist, since that would mean keeping facts from the reader and thus, I suppose, no longer be omniscient. I told her not to worry. As the writer, she gets to decide what is in frame in focus, and what is out.

Think of 3rd person omniscient as the lens of a camera in a movie. It shows the scene, apparently without bias, and may focus in on one character or another, or have wide shots, close ups, etc. The skilled movie-maker can still pull off wild twists, simply by decided where and how to point their camera.

Similarly, the author can choose what to focus on. Nay, she must choose, as it is literally impossible to describe every object, every action, and everything else that happens in a given scene. Even if possible, it would be boring.

This is why I think it’s helpful to analyze non-book media. What do those storytellers do, and why, and can that translate to a book? In this case, the eye of the camera is a perfect analogy for the view of omniscient 3rd.


Memoir and Other Nonfiction

In another online interaction, I mentioned that, if I ever get around to writing a memoir of library life, I might just leave COVID out (probably not, anymore, but this was back in May, and I was young and naive). Shocked, someone replied that it’s such a huge event and part of everyone’s lives; why would I do that? They might well have said how can I do that.

Because it’s a memoir, basically. Memoirs, unlike autobiographies, focus on one aspect of a person’s life. They don’t need to include everything. If it hadn’t dragged on for months and actually affected the type of experiences I want to put in my book (ie, weird things that patrons and staff do at the library), there would be no point in including it.

One can write a memoir set during the year 2001 without delving into the World Trade Center Attack, though it was the most influential event on that year and the next decade for two countries. I was in middle school then; my “middle school memoir” would include, mostly, adolescent girl and Catholic school silliness. Maybe two pages might be devoted to the attacks, because, at that point in my life, they pretty much affected two days of my consciousness. It wasn’t for a while that my focus, my lens, really realized all the repercussions.

And though this is particularly true of memoirs, all nonfiction has to leave some events and individuals on the cutting room floor, again, by nature of the bookish beast. More interestingly, in my mind, is what nonfiction writers choose to include. One of the reasons I love nonfiction is that those authors are some of the most skilled meaning makers, weaving together seemingly disparate aspects of history into a cohesive narrative.

A wonderful example of this is The Apparitionists: A Tale of Phantoms, Fraud, Photography, and the Man Who Captured Lincoln's Ghost by Peter Manseau. Manseau takes the American Civil War, the early history of photography, and the Spiritualist religion and examines how each one influenced and was influenced by the others. Note that most books about the Civil War don’t focus that much on photography, and almost none mention Spiritualism. They don’t have to, because that’s not what those authors are trying to talk about. Manseau takes a different perspective, not about battles or the fight against slavery, but about the cyclical influences of technology, religion, and war on society. Neither focus—the general Civil War view nor Manseau’s—is wrong or misleading. Both are historically accurate; they are simply about different aspects of history.


Mystery: Clues and Red Herrings

Finally, we come to my current obsession, and one where the question of what to include and what to leave out is particularly relevant: mystery fiction. Not only am I writing a mystery, I’m on a mystery binge. Poirot, Miss Marple, Father Brown, and The Red House Mystery: by soaking my brain in these, I am hoping to gain the ability to write a satisfying puzzle and denouement.

Any classic mystery relies chiefly on two things: clues and red herrings. Rather than excluding relevant details, and thus pulling the solution out of nowhere, the skilled writer’s ability to satisfyingly fool the audience relies on putting in more details that necessary and then obscuring which are relevant to the actual case.

This is deliberate on the writer’s part. When throwing in a red herring, they have to decide why it would be misidentified as a real clue, what it’s actual meaning is, and how the clever detective comes to figure out the difference. They then have to do the opposite for important clues: why does this get overlooked or misinterpreted? How does the detective discover the truth?

I had to consider this in the chapter I wrote—then re-wrote—recently. The first draft had all the facts of the case, but essentially laid it bare for the reader. It was not only too obvious, but also not punchy or interesting. So I went back to the drawing board, mentioning important clues but only hinting at their true meaning. I’m not sure I put enough physical red herrings, but I have several misleading conversations and assumptions on the part of the detective’s assistant.

Will it be satisfying? That remains to be seen, as I’m but a novice at mysteries. I may just need to adjust the focus of my lens a few more times.

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