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Removing Clutter

by | Dec 27, 2014

When writing, I've wrestled with how to focus on some things (like a character) and not others. Recently, I read a writing book that said: The focus will be sharp, not because it is narrow, but because it is specific.

Started by Bernard Rice on 2014-12-27 at 08:30

A while back, I posted a question in the "Ask the Author" part of this forum regarding how to identify the main character according to the Soul method, something representative of a larger issue I've wrestled with most of my writing life, about how to focus on some things (like a character) and not others. I naturally tend to "focus" on everything and everyone—it's actually possible to do so, I do it all the time. Think of it as multi-tasking without the "tasking" part.

Recently I came across a short chapter entitled "Focus" in Creating Short Fiction by Damon Knight. The last line of the chapter read (italics his): The focus will be sharp, not because it is narrow, but because it is specific.

He made the point that first you must widen your scope—which I do quite by nature. Then, when you return to the scene, you have all this specific information which informs what you do and what you know about everything. Knowing specifics about a lot of things helps you focus because it helps you to be more specific.

Well, that was encouraging. I often beat myself up that my focus is... well not focused at all. But he makes the point that true focus is just being specific, regardless what you're thinking about or writing about—good advice for life as well as writing.

It's a way out of too many distractions in a story. Damon assumes the writer has no ideas (not my problem!) and has to apply focus to each element in his story to give it life when he "comes back into the room" where his story lives. The lesson to me is to remove clutter from the room. Note the irrelevant specific items and jettison them. Just because I see something clearly doesn't mean it belongs there.

That's how Mr. Knight informs my process. First, get over the notion that focus is narrowing in any way. I'm not "forsaking" anything, as I like to say (I sound a little archaic sometimes). I am actually zooming in on each specific item in my story and realizing some things just don't play a part in the scene. You wouldn't have some random character burst in and interrupt everyone for no reason, or allow a grocery list left on a table to draw focus from the journal a character is writing. We make messes when we work, and rooms get cluttered. It's not interesting enough that I see and can describe, even dramatize things so clearly. The important thing sits right next to the useless thing—maybe the useless thing is sitting on top of the important thing, hiding it from view. Some things—most things, perhaps—have got to go.

They're clutter.

Roger replied...

This is very good stuff, Bernie. Thanks for sharing it.

Janie Baskin replied...

This is thought provoking and I'll use it as test in my writing.

Will Cooper replied...

In my opinion, narrative descriptions of people or things should serve a purpose. In some combination or other, they should reveal character or play a role in plot, or they should help establish location and mood. If they don't, they're clutter, as Bernie puts it. If an author tells us that his protagonist fiddles with his wedding ring while speaking with his wife, that should mean something. If we learn that a female character always wears bright red lipstick to church, that should tell the reader something important about her. If a writer tells us that a single worn black leather glove gets left behind on a bar stool, smelling of perfume, that should lead to something, or say something about the character who left it. Every descriptive detail that makes its way into a story should have a necessary relationship to the story-telling. I personally dislike long descriptive passages that have no more reason for being than an author's desire to show off his or her "literary talent". In playwriting, especially, there's no time to screw around with non-essential props or dialogue that's clever for the sake of being clever.

Bernard Rice replied...

Will makes the point about writing with purpose clearly and, well, forcefully.

I rarely am visited by the clarity of vision Will appears to be speaking from, and I've gotten used to the chaotic condition of my inner life. There is not one sentiment Will has expressed that's in any way "wrong," it's all spot-on. If anyone reading this thread has that vision, or aspires to have it, more power to you.

For me, writing, even playwrighting, is a delightful but at times maddening process of attempting to discover a story in a blizzard (seasonal image) of thoughts and impressions. The fact that the characters and their universes are all made-up makes it seem even more maddening than life itself. So if you know what you're doing, gentle writer, listen to Will, because he's right. If you're lost in wonderment at it all, if for you, as for me, it's "all good," then perhaps my notes on the matter of choosing what to leave in and what to leave out expressed in my original post may help you sort things out. (An addendum to what I wrote is that, instead of "killing your darlings," as writers like to say, you should remainder all your unused bon mots in a file somewhere, also something writers like to suggest.)

I knew a playwright once who always purposely included a single line of dialogue in his plays that did not, and could not in any rational way, contribute to any purpose in his play. Not recommending this, just another way of saying, "the rules are, there ain't no rules." When I was a boy I wrote my own grammar. I didn't even like the rules of language, much less the rules of good writing.

Whatever works for each individual writer is good, to paraphrase a dictum from my former life as a psychotherapist. Or as Neil Simon had a writer character put it, "And oh, what choices...."



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