Tuesday 15 August 2017

Don't even bang unless you plan to hit something

So t'other day I found Brian McClellan's The Crimson Campaign at the library. I hadn't read the first book in the series but as he was on my to read list, I decided to give it a crack. Some parts I enjoyed immensely, some parts I didn't, but there was one part in particular that I really, really liked as a smart piece of writing.

And that is the scene he didn't write.

Okay, spoiler time.

At one point, the detective Adapost has to find the hero Taniel. We already know where Taniel is at this point - he's wasting his life away in a drug den. Its early in the book and we know Taniel's gonna  play a big part - it's there on the blurb for crying out loud - so its easy to deduce he's gonna be found and join the rest of the world. Instead of writing this inherently untense scene, McClellan simply shows Adapost getting the job and then Adapost telling someone else where he is. Job done.

In vaguer terms for spoiler haters, Character A is told to find Character B and the likelihood of it happening is high. McClellan doesn't write the scene showing this but instead jumps to Character A reporting "job done".

I can't get over how clever I think this is. The reason is I think a lot of authors would have included this as a scene simply because it feels like an important part of the narrative. But it would have added very little to the story. It wouldn't have cranked up the tension, it wouldn't have increased our knowledge of the characters much, it wouldn't have revealed new details about the plot. All it would have really done is fatten out the book.

Now there's a lot of ways the scene could have been made interesting. Add complications. Use the opportunity to throw a lot of light on how the characters' minds work. But this is all fattening up the book even further and its not necessary. Its making a mountain out of a molehill just to make the molehill more interesting. Sometimes that's the right thing to do.

But if the story dictates the mountain is actually behind the molehill, its best to just jump right over the wee thing as quick as possible. And failing to do so is arguably how you get the worst excesses of The Wheel of Time or Song of Ice and Fire. Trying to include all the important narrative moments and make all of them interesting leaves you with a huge unwieldy story. There's a lot to be said for concentrating on the most important parts and letting the rest go hang.

A lot of authors do so. But I think a lot of authors would have done so in this occasion by writing a perfectly pleasant scene that hurries over the narrative gap. There's nothing hugely wrong with that. What McClellan did though is, to my mind, better. He just skipped straight to a scene that mattered more. And, while I didn't love The Crimson Campaign, what I liked about it was all the product of a tight intense plot.

Because every scene McClellan included in the book was meant to have a notable purpose. Or, in the terminology of Outkast, he didn't bang without planning to hit something. And that is the single most useful and inspirational bit of writing advice I've got out of reading someone else's books in a while.

Although I suppose arguably there's even more skill in having a narrative where you don't even need such an obvious missed scene. But that's a post for another time.