Avoiding Clutter

Each quarter as I go through the stories for the Writers of the Future Contest, I search for patterns to problems. This quarter I saw that we had far more fantasy than ever before—particularly modern fairytales. That’s not a problem, really, just an observation. I’m seeing more really good stories than ever before, but I am seeing a problem that I will call “clutter.”

Think about it this way: imagine that your friend is in the hospital and has asked you to bring some pajamas. So you get the key, go into the house, with the goal of finding them in the bedroom: but the house has so much junk strewn across the floor—old pizza boxes, discarded clothes, and motorcycle parts—that you can’t pick your way across a room.

That’s the way that a cluttered story is. There are certain things that the reader needs in order to enjoy a story, but sometimes unnecessary bits of description, pointless dialog, and trivial narration get in the way.

When you start a story, you need to introduce a character, their world, and a major problem quickly. So if you have your character walking to an important meeting, or drinking coffee and thinking, or noticing the way that a female robot looks especially attractive this morning: that’s clutter. Anything that is unnecessary, that distracts us or pulls us away from the story, can be clutter, getting in the way of the story.

I had a lot of cluttered stories this quarter. In fact, clutter is the second-most prevalent reason that I reject a story. However, stories do need a little clutter. They need some character, some of the writer’s personality and charm to make them individual. 

If you have an author who tries to strip a tale down to its barest essence, tell the story in as few words as possible, it can become very bland. You could tell War and Peace in a page, if you put your mind to it.

So how do you find the right balance between story and artistic license?

That’s pretty much a matter of personal taste. I had one writer this quarter who was perhaps the most-talented stylist I’ve seen in a couple of years. She had two or three gorgeous metaphors for how the sun rose, how the protagonist moved her hands as she smoked, and so on. On the level of style, the author was obviously world-class.  On the level of story, though, I didn’t feel engaged at all. The story just wasn’t compelling me forward, and so that author received an Honorable Mention rather than a larger prize. She would do well to look at her piece, cut back on the number of metaphors, and figure out how to add some intrigue and tension into the piece.

And she wasn’t the only one. Literally out of the thousands of stories that I got, I gave hundreds of rejections simply because by page two I didn’t feel that I was hooked into the story, even though the author’s style was strong on many of the pieces. In short, in one way or another, I felt that the piece was cluttered—there were unimportant things happening, and they were being related when more important aspects of the story needed to be told.

So when you begin a story, I want you to consider these questions:

  1.  How can I hook my reader in the first sentence or two—and do I need to put three or four hooks into the first page?
  2.  How can I introduce my setting and really bring it to life in an interesting way?
  3.  How can I introduce my protagonist in a fascinating way?

What is my protagonist’s main goal? What stops him from achieving that goal? Why does he/she want that thing so badly? What is the protagonist’s plan for achieving that goal?

  1.  My protagonist needs to have the biggest problem of his or her life in this short story, typically, so how can I make my reader’s jaw drop when they discover that problem?

These are the important parts that readers need in order to enjoy a story. As for your personal style, your own unique voice and artistic take, you have a lot of freedom in giving us your individual spin on the tale—just don’t clutter it up!

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