Drive and Depth: Debating My Least Favorite Writing Rule

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I’m coming to the uncomfortable conclusion that I need to cut a lot from the second in the series I’m writing. I continually waffle back and forth depending on the day, of course. But there is a thread of truth in the idea that I’ve written content in this book that doesn’t drive the plot forward.

Does is portray intriguing characterization? Definitely. Rich emotion and relationships? Oh, yes. Interesting dynamics and world building? You betcha. Forwarding the particular thread of plot for this novel? Well…

It is the second in the series. So some parts of me say, there’s leeway! People will care about these characters now (as it is the second book), so they’ll want to read about these fun interplays that delve deeper into the dynamics of the world and how the characters fit into it (and each other)! Then I’ll bring in the real clincher for this novel, and off we go.

But the more I read, the more I get the feeling I really need to start cutting. Or, somehow, shorten the scenes I’ve written. There seems to be a lot of advice being churned out — or maybe I’m just now paying attention to it — about how every scene needs to drive the plot forward, to build on the scene before it.

I think I’m pretty good on the building from previous scenes. If the difficult of extracting one of my scenes without collapsing part of the story is anything to go on, I’m good at that part. But not all the my scenes necessarily drive the plot forward.

But then part of me wonders — what does that really mean, drive the plot forward? Sure, you’ve got the main storyline of what occurs that hopefully follows a theme, maybe teaches a lesson, hitting upon human moments and concerns. But then there’s this whole nebulous character part of it.

Characters are what drive the story. Characters are what make readers actually care about the story. But to have characters, you have to have characterization, growth, interplays and dynamics. Which I absolutely adore, both as a reader and a writer.

So how much characterization is too much? How much of the book can be character focused, and how much solely plot?

I know the aim is to weave both of these together, so they seamlessly slide into each other and catapult the whole story forward. So maybe my real problem is learning how to do that more effectively.

But that can’t be quite right, because I still have 148k words on this mammoth of a book, and even if I did still start the ‘action’ earlier and weaved everything else in later, that’d still be the word count. So I’m back to — too many scenes that involve just characterization.

Which brings me to my second complaint of the rule that all scenes must move the plot forward.

When I started writing, I was fascinated by making everything real. Real emotions, real interactions, real situations (well, as real as you can get with dragons flying around). While I’m not as obsessed with it now as I was then, there’s still a part of me that yearns for a plot to not be so straightforward.

Real life has dead ends. Clues that aren’t clues. Unfortunate bunny trails. Long walks that turn into long conversations that no one quite remembers fully, but they know what it felt like. Boredom. Confusion. Unclear motives. Self-loss.

I’m not advocating long drawn out scenes about doing dishes or being stuck in traffic for an hour. That’s boring. There’s a difference between relaying boredom and being boring. But at some point, I get bored with scenes that do nothing but drive forward. Life is fuller than that. Life has more mystery and more depth.

I want to stop and savor. Enjoy the world I’m immersed in. Really get to know the characters, and feel what they feel. Pick apart their minds and their motivations, and curl up inside their heads.

But. Too much can mean a story that drags.

So. Where is the line, do you think? Between plot and character; between drive and depth? Where do you draw your line in this tug of war?

About R. K. Brainerd

I've been writing since my pre-teens, mostly in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. Taking interesting concepts and dropping complex characters into fantastical worlds is my jam. I also raise dairy goats and herd cats, the evidence of which can be found on my Instagram. Welcome to the adventure. View all posts by R. K. Brainerd

6 responses to “Drive and Depth: Debating My Least Favorite Writing Rule

  • jac forsyth

    Maybe this fits in with the show, not tell rule? I agree with what you’re saying, I too adore those little moments where we are pulled close by an author, but they don’t have to be much. A hand lingering on a door handle during a conversation, a child playing with the zip on his fathers hoodie. Keep the baby, throw out the bath water is my motto.

    Liked by 1 person

    • R. K. Brainerd

      Ha! Throw out the bath water, keep the baby. That’s great!

      And yes. You’re absolutely right. I think sometimes I get lost in all of it. Taking a step back and seeing things with a clear head may help me with those little moments that don’t need to be big long sections.

      Liked by 1 person

  • onereasonableperson

    I’m right there with you. Such a difficult balance to achieve.

    My primary rule is: Don’t bore the reader.

    If the plot meanders a little bit at the expense of character development, I can live with that – as long as I’m keeping the reader interested.

    Liked by 1 person

  • Nicole Evans

    Holy shit, this post resonates with me on so many levels. If this doesn’t accurately express my emotions as a writer, I have no idea what does. The more I write, the more I’m aware of how many rules there are and the restrictions we’re meant to follow (and even more hyper-aware that I’m usually breaking them). It’s so hard to figure out what advice and rules actually help improve a story (as they vary from story to story and writer to writer) and yet still keep the essence of what *you* enjoy and want, while at the same time, creating something readers will enjoy reading.

    At the end of the day, I think this: write the story that you love. If, at the end of it all, that story is a 148K behemoth, it’s a 148K behemoth. If people hate it for the same reason you love it, then that’s what happens. But there will be people out there who are so happy for those chapters you include that don’t drive the plot forward.

    Or, edit and try to balance everything and do it “right”. But don’t fade away from the story that you love. Keep that love and passion real.

    (See how difficult this is?! Even giving my own two cents and I’m flopping back and forth. Ugh. :P)

    Liked by 1 person

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