‘If it doesn’t move the story along, take it out,’ – good advice or not?

blogger3aOK, hands up, who’s been given, or read the advice that: ‘if it doesn’t move the story along, take it out’?   Or at least words to that effect.  My guess is just about every writer has at some time or other.  I have, both.  That is, I’ve been given it (in an edit) and read it, probably several times.   At first I took the advice to heart and searched through my manuscript for anything I thought might be seen as ‘fluff’.  Dissatisfied I put the book down and wrote my second book, ‘Project Noah’.  I got the same advice, but when I looked at a given example, critically, I disagreed.  Yes I could have taken it out and yes the story would still have worked.  But, to me at least, it would have lost something.  It would have taken some of the colour out of the narrative.

In every story, but especially in science fiction, we are creating a world the reader hasn’t seen or experienced.  Therefore I believe we need to describe how we see that world, the sounds the sights and smells.  We need to provide clues as to how that world functions, what makes it tick.  I’m not saying we should go overboard, or ‘off on one,’ describing everything in minute detail.  That smacks of self indulgence.  If you’ve read my blogs on ‘ What makes a good read, or not’, you’ll know I stopped reading one book that spent three or four pages describing how the electrical system worked on a Mars base.  I also give other examples where, for me, the writer has really ‘gone off on one,’ and I’ve got bored with the whole thing.

This question raised itself to me again while away on holiday for a week.  Perhaps not writing for a time freed my mind to wander.  However, while there I read a few books.  Amongst them was Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’  I also started the award winning ‘2312’ by Kim Stanley Robinson.   I think Neil Gaiman is a master story teller and part of the charm of his books is the effort he puts into describing the world in which his characters live, and the asides that let you deeper into  their characters.  Kim Stanley Robinson’s book has a lot of what you might call ‘asides’, describing e.g. the landscape of Mercury and other settings, the lives of the characters, the backdrop against which the story unfolds.  I could see that some might think these were too much, or go on too long.  I don’t, I like the scene setting and descriptions.  They may not ‘move the story along’, but to me they are essential.  Also, they provide punctuation in a story, time out, a breather.  They add to the rhythm of the story.

So going back to my original question in the title or to that piece of advice.  I say exercise caution on both counts.  Being too ruthless on the latter will leave your story in shades of grey (hopefully not 50).  However, going overboard on the descriptions may bore your reader.  My advice is to ask yourself a few questions as you reread it.  Who are you doing it for? yourself or the reader?  If you are just trying to show how clever you are or you have some personal axe to grind then best leave it out.  Is it going to draw the reader in to your world, expand their  mind, make them go ‘whow!’ or is it going to send them to sleep and forget what’s really going on.?  I’m sure you can think of others

Anyway, you get the idea.  Don’t ignore, but do treat with caution, the simple, throw away adage, ‘if it doesn’t move the story along, take it out.’   And next time you are writing or reading think about how you or the writer are building the picture of their worlds.   Oh, and I went back and put some of those removed descriptions back in.  I believe the story is better for them.

As always your thoughts on the matter are gratefully received.

Ian Martyn

Author: Ian Martyn

Science Fiction Writer

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