The other day, I gave a talk to a high school class about how I did the world-building for my SF book Tankborn. This was a creative writing class, and the students were very motivated to learn more about how I wrote Tankborn and about the writing business in general.
During the talk, I brought up an essential fact about writing fiction: that although real life is full of the trivial and mundane, there’s no room for the unimportant in fiction.
In real life, all sorts of things can happen. You try to start your car and your battery is dead. So maybe you’re late for work and get a chewing out. Or you happen to meet a friendly stranger at the supermarket and you chat for the few minutes you wait together in line. Or when you get home from the market, you discover you got regular coffee when you meant to get decaf. Or perhaps you spend days at your father’s care home (as I did earlier this year) as he’s dying.
Could these things happen in your fiction story? Of course they could, whether you’re writing a realistic or speculative story. But here’s the big difference. All of those events, from the mundane (chatting up a stranger) to the life-changing (the death of your father) would have to have a purpose in your story. They should not, must not be there just to fill space on the page.
For instance, the battery going dead might mean that your main character gets to work late and discovers a police cordon around her office building. Then she sees the bodies wheeled out, including that of the mass murderer who just killed her boss and several co-workers.
That stranger your character chats with in line could be a harried single father in desperate need of a nanny. Perhaps your main character is in desperate need of a job and she agrees to watch the father’s three unruly kids. This would lead to true love and the taming of the kids (yes, I used to write romance novels).
That accidentally purchased coffee could have scrawled across the bottom a message that leads the main character to a factory where the employees are victims of a human trafficker. If the character had grabbed the decaf instead of the regular, she might never have seen the message.
So think about your own story. Does every scene count for something? Are your characters finding clues, are they revealing information, are you raising the stakes for them in ways that moves the plot forward? It’s pointless to have the heroine narrowly avoid being run over by a car (as nail-biting as that might be) unless the person driving the car (or the person who hired them to drive the car) is crucial to the plot. If she slips and falls down a cliff, she’d better find a secret cave or a dead body or a treasure chest. And if she doesn’t get herself out of that fix, the person who does rescue her had better be the love interest.
If you’re sure every scene in your manuscript does have a purpose, let me up the ante. Find a way for at least some of those scenes to do double or triple duty. Have the scene reveal not only information, but character. Have it expose a character’s weakness and also set up a crucial plot point that will be paid off later. Use that scene to not only describe the setting, but how that setting impacts your character.
Nearly every scene can do double duty. Many can do triple duty. Your goal is to give the reader aha moments, when she or he realizes, “Oh, that’s why that was in there.”
Because here’s the thing, here’s the reason every scene must have a purpose. It is the nature of books and stories that as a reader reads, they are accustomed to noticing what happens to the characters. They are used to tucking away unusual events and to consider them important. If you describe your character brushing her teeth every morning, but that never factors into the plot, it will irritate your reader. Brushing teeth is trivial…unless it’s not. Unless that’s how our character is poisoned. Or that’s part of her OCD routine (maybe she has to do it at a set time and for a set number of strokes each day).
Your reader is going to notice those little details. She’s going to want her payoff later in the story. Make sure she gets it–or hit that delete key.