Look, I’ve talked about how you’ll never be able to write exactly the novel in your head, right? I’ve talked about it till your eyes bled in reading it. In fact, you’re probably nodding your head right now and going “Not that again!”
Okay, not that again. Or at least not exactly that.
One thing you might realize when I tell you you’ll never be able to write exactly what’s in your head, is that you really don’t want to. No, not even if you could.
If your head is like mine, the story in your head and the characters in your head are as close to real life as it’s possible to be. Meaning if I asked you could probably, with very little thought, tell me what your character had for breakfast, or what the name of her first cat was. Don’t tell me. No, really. Not unless it has a bearing on the story you’re trying to tell.
Okay, fine, a little extraneous information might be good for rounding out the narrative and making it seem real. This is something I’m still coping with, okay? For years on end, I held onto the narrative so tight it couldn’t breathe. I excised enough pages from Ill Met By Moonlight to make another two novels. (What do you mean can you buy the cut scenes? You’re sick, you know that? It’s an illness. You probably want to buy my grocery list, too. No, don’t answer that. I don’t want to know.) It wasn’t till Draw One In The Dark that I allowed in a scene that didn’t advance the plot – I thought – what I call the “three guys in the car scene.” It wasn’t until years later that I realized it did advance something. That’s the scene in which the three male protagonists, two of whom are rivals and antagonists, become brothers at arms.
However, if you write too many extraneous scenes, you won’t have a story in the end, you’ll have soup. Even if you’re writing slice of life, you need to control what goes on the page, otherwise people will wonder what the story is, and what is the filler material. Look, life isn’t a story. There is no steady thread of narrative through people’s lives. Story is the narrative we superimpose on our lives. We naturally make some events stand out and leave the others in the background.
No? Right. Think of an important day for you. Say, your wedding day. You’re going to tell me you remember everything about it, right? Sure you do. At what precise time did you get up? What flavor of toothpaste did you use? How many steps between your bed and the bathroom sink? Did you put the toothbrush down forcefully after you brushed your teeth?
Don’t tell me that’s not important. Of course it isn’t. Those are the bits you leave out of the narrative. Instead, you remember your clothes, and standing next to your future spouse as you said your vows, and the way you felt, and the guests at the reception, and the first dance. The IMPORTANT stuff. Narrative is like that. The human mind – even the non writing mind – is a mechanism for making story out of chaos.
Unfortunately one side effect of this is that it tends to make your characters seem “smaller.” I.e., your genius comes across as less than amazing, if the reader only got the relevant facts about him. Your madman might seem less obsessed if you only see him occasionally.
There is a distancing factor to fiction. My husband and I realized this when watching Friends – yeah, okay, so deal. It was after 9/11 and we set in front of the TV watching re runs of TV series. That’s when we became conversant with Buffy and Friends. Normally we don’t watch enough TV to follow series – and thought the characters were so quirky that if they existed in real life, they’d all be taking drugs to control their issues. But on TV they seemed believable. Because you really need to emphasize traits, when you only see people in brief intervals.
And you can’t let us see people’s contradictory traits because then your novel becomes a Christopher Marlowe play. The good have enough bad and the bad enough good that you have no clue whom to cheer for. Yeah, yeah, it’s real life, but that’s NOT what you’re writing. Keep your villains villainous (which doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have perfectly reasonable reasons for what they’re doing – remember no one is a villain in their own eyes. But make them still evil) and your heroes heroic.
Don’t be afraid to give your characters outrageous characteristics or to make them larger than life. Even if you’re writing “real life” you’ll need to do that to some extent, or people will think they’re blah and boring.
Look, in real life, no man would approach Athena Hera Sinistra as written – well, not without wearing a protective cup. And Kit? He’s uh… attractive in a brooding way on the page. But I had to exaggerate the brooding so it came across, and if a real man were like that… well… She’d be telling him “Stomp your foot once for yes, twice for no.”
Don’t be afraid. Make that character larger than life. On the page, he or she will appear just right.