I have a dirty little secret – sometimes I don’t read very much. In the world of writing and editing, this is equivalent to a French chef admitting that he dislikes cooking with butter. Unfathomable, in other words.
Actually, let me qualify that: I read in bursts. I often go for a few weeks without reading something, and then I’ll devour a book if it grabs me. Most of the time, I enjoy what I read. But sometimes, a book is so amazing that I pay conscious attention to the skill with which it was written: the careful rationing of backstory, the distribution of telling personality traits and motivations amongst different characters, and the amazing, delicate use of le mot juste.
I felt this most recently while reading Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. In reading it, I was acutely aware of how subtly the author was building up the tension, looping between the moments immediately before and after the novel’s opening terrorist attack and then switching back to describe a Japanese businessman’s abiding love for opera.
This all brought to mind an old childhood game: KerPlunk.
If you were a kid in the late 80s to early 90s, you might know what I’m talking about. In this game, you have a tall column of plastic with holes studded through the middle. In these holes, you thread in enough small plastic sticks to make a sturdy lattice. Then, you pour a number of marbles on top of the lattice and try to pull out as many of the sticks as possible without making the marbles fall, like so:
KerPlunk makes you wonder how much weight those sticks can bear before the marbles find a new way to crash to the ground. How many can you take away before they fall? And how long will it take to do so?
In other words, how well can you make each sentence count? How can you make each individual piece of your story’s support structure – your characters, setting, dialogue, and more – grab your reader in the most efficient and compelling manner possible? Like KerPlunk, writing a good story is about testing certain limits. Write for yourself, and take away whatever you think doesn’t serve your story in the end. However, unlike KerPlunk, you have the luxury of removing and then reinserting elements of your story into new places – and thank goodness for that!
Sometimes, this requires a lot of planning. The surest way to lose KerPlunk is to keep pulling out plastic threads from the same section, eventually widening the gaps through which the marbles can fall. And the surest way to lose the attention of readers is to not provide important information when needed.
In KerPlunk terms, don’t pull out every plastic thread you can, because you might need it in the future. Make backup plans. Make your setting breathe. Give your readers information that proves useful later. Throw in a red herring if the story demands it, like in mysteries. But always think about how you can make each part of your story carry the most weight possible without buckling or breaking or letting any marbles through.
PS: In Bel Canto, the author wrote only a single acknowledgement – and that was to her editor. High praise indeed! So if you’re feeling cranky and think that your editor/friend/writing group doesn’t really understand what you’re trying to do, just imagine that they’re trying to play KerPlunk with you. They have the same goal to remove as many unnecessary plastic threads as possible, but they’re doing so from a different perspective.