The Perfect Story: Economy

Some virtues that would be found in a perfect story almost go without saying.  For example, a perfect tale would be economical.  There are a number of ways that a story can lack economy.  Most authors probably think here that I’m going to harp on descriptions that are overwritten, or conversations that don’t need to take place.  Those are the first things that come to mind, since most of us as authors are always fighting against these.  But there many other ways that a story can lack economy.

A tale can have, for example, excess characters.  What’s an excess character?  That may be a matter of choice.  Some authors might say that if you have two characters providing the same function in a tale, then one of them needs to be cut.  For example, if your hero has two women that he loves, one might be extraneous—unless of course you’re trying to set up a love triangle.

I’ve often seen characters that exist primarily to bring out a theme or express a point of view.  For example, if our protagonist needs some counsel in the story, he might have a drinking buddy that acts as a “wise friend.”  I think that’s a reasonable use of a character in most cases, but if you’re writing a fantasy tale and you’re trying to chronicle the adventures of entire armies, there’s a good chance you’ve gone overboard.

Similarly, I’ve seen many stories that lack economy in theme.  Now, all of us seek meaning in life, so it’s natural that we talk about things that are “bigger than ourselves” in stories.  Yet I recall one author a few years ago who published his first book and said, “I made sure that I talked about every theme that I’ve ever wanted to talk about in my first book, just in case I never got to publish another.”  I never did read the book.  Too often I’ve seen authors whose works suffer from what I call being “fraught with meaning.”  In some cases, the novel becomes a mere tool for expressing eccentric political views.  Some authors will use it to stump the latest fad in political correctness, and so on.

In addition to this, you have to watch out for the problem of just creating too many scenes.  New authors will often create a scene to introduce a character.  A second scene, in another setting, then introduces a friend.  A third scene introduces a problem.  A flashback lets us see why this problem is so troubling to our protagonist, and so on.  I used to have a writing instructor, Leslie Norris, who said, “If your scene doesn’t accomplish at least three things, it doesn’t accomplish enough.”

Well, he was sort of right, and sort of wrong.  There are times when a scene needs to be big, when an action needs to stand apart from all others just so that it gains a bit of weight, so that it stands out from the rest.  You don’t want too much going on in every scene.  A story can become too “busy,” too.  Just as a painting can have so much detail that no one thing is isolated, the same can happen with stories.

In Hollywood, we often worry in screenplays if a story has too many settings.  The cost of setting up a shot—moving the cameras, the lights, and the entire film crew—is one of the major expenses in a motion picture.  So we look for ways to economize on settings without boring the viewer.

Last of all, we worry about economy in length.  A good author weighs every word to decide whether it is necessary to the tale.  A better author weighs every syllable.  If it isn’t needed, cut it out.

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