Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Does every sentence have to reveal character or advance plot?

Kurt Vonnegut on Creative Writing 101

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.

Every sentence? I can’t help but think of Moby Dick which has long passages about whaling. Or the Hunch Back of Notre Dame which is as much an expose on French society as it is about the title character. However if you step back to the French title you discover that maybe the main character is not Quasimodo but is instead the cathedral itself. Notre-Dame de Paris. There still however seems to be a lot of extra material.

I once suggested that Shakespeare could be improved by using fewer words. My wife and several other people promptly informed me that not only was that not true, but that Shakespeare had used exactly the right number of words.

As I have confessed before through most of my writing experience my challenge was too few words not to many. If the assignment called for five pages I always ran out of things to say at three and a half pages. So the idea of cutting out material seems counter intuitive.

So what else might sentences do if not move plot and develop character? Is there no room for visualizing the scene or for setting the larger context? Without that doesn't every story become a”a once upon a time experience,” lacking the texture.

I had not read these points on writing as I rewrote Henry, but I found on my own and from critique feedback that there were a number of scenes that did nothing for the story except possibly bore the reader, further convincing them of how boring Henry’s life was, but leaving the reader so bored they would not continue reading. Some of those scenes made great short stories others didn't even have that quality to them.

So on point 4 I am not 100% in agreement with Mr. Vonnegut, but I would say every sentence should have a purpose. And the primary purpose of the vast majority of sentences should be to move plot or develop character.

5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

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