Make Everything Matter
A musician I work with has a saying, occasionally recited when someone in the band isn’t wild about playing a given song: “Every song is someone’s favorite song.”
This applies to a lot of things, even literature. Maybe especially literature. Because you never know when some small throw-away scene is going to resonate with someone…
I’m in a bookstore in Wyoming on book tour when a middle-aged woman corners me, hauls out her personal copy of my book and turns to a specific page, then proceeds to read a specific passage to me. Word for word. “This, right here…” she says when she’s finished, tapping the text with her fingernail, “…is exactly what it feels like.” We have a brief discussion, I thank her for her kind words, and she leaves. That’s it. But it’s clear the scene means a lot to her.
The reason this made such an impression on me is that the scene in question wasn’t what I’d consider one of the signature scenes in the book… not the end of a section or chapter, where you rework it until you think it really conveys what you’re trying to say. And not one of those aha! scenes where you’re revealing important information or the viewpoint character suddenly has an epiphany. It was just a transitional piece of interior monolog between two bits of action.
And yet, to this woman, it had significance. Maybe because it was about something she’d experienced herself, or maybe because it described things in a way that hit home for some reason. Regardless, the scene was important to her, and I was relieved I’d apparently done it justice.
There’s a small scene in one of my favorite novels… almost a throw-away line. Very understated. Basically, someone looks at someone. And not either of the main characters. But upon reading it, the tumblers clicked into place and a minor subplot to the primary story suddenly had more dimension. If you missed it the story would still work just fine, but for me, that small piece of elegant ‘under-explaining’ grew to represent everything I loved about the book as a whole.
In another book I read a few years back, there was a short scene—culminating in a bit of dialog—that really worked for me. Honestly, that brief scene was pretty much the only thing from the book that I can recall in detail, but it was enough. More recently, I was reading an interview with a well-regarded editor. One of the questions was on the topic of favorite books or scenes that the editor had worked on. The editor said what authors and editors always say (…that’s like asking me which kid is my favorite…) but then she added, “Well, there is this one scene in a book I edited…” and proceeded to quote my very favorite line from the book in question. (And yeah, you’d better believe I pay a little more attention to that editor and her work since then.)
On the flip side, there was a bar scene in Road Rash that my editor thought could probably go. (Okay, half the scenes in that book take place in a bar… what can I say?) However, to me it was one of a handful of pivotal scenes in the book, so I felt it should stay (although she has very good instincts and I did tighten it up). The point is, that little scene was one of my ‘favorite songs,’ and I feel that the more the writer is emotionally engaged in the story, the more the reader will be engaged also. (See this post for more on “finding a way in.”)
I’m not saying all the little transition-type bits in our work should have added meaning or extra inflection. Quite the contrary—often the best way to say someone went to the store is to simply write, “She went to the store.” But if there’s a scene that’s about why someone does something, it may be stronger to show the character’s thoughts and feelings around this--from the inside—than to describe it from the outside. Because it’ll inform us much more about the character herself—and how she thinks and feels—than a more objective observation. And having readers identify with your character on an emotional level may be the single most important aspect in getting them to “fall into” your story.
However, you can never really tell which scene or section or bit of dialog is going to grab the reader (because readers are like writers—each unique, with their own tastes and preferences). All we can really do—especially during the rewriting/revising/editing stages—is to consider everything carefully, without thinking, Well, this little throw-away scene doesn’t really matter because it’s just a bit of transition or monolog or explanation. Maybe it’s better if we realize that any of the hundreds of scenes in our books could end up as someone’s favorite scene. And treat them all accordingly.
Because it all matters. We shouldn’t have any throw-away parts. If there are, we should throw them away. But if they’re going to be in the book, we should treat them like they matter.
Because they do.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.