Have you ever woken up in the middle of a draft to find it had gone totally squirrel berries, but you had no idea how, where or why? I mean, it was so promising at first, but then something went wrong and… w’da hell happened?! You had everything—a good setting, awesome characters, a killer plot and tons of ideas. Where’d it go?!
This problem is two-face, and it happens to the best of them. Remember, drafting is a messy business but that doesn’t mean it’s allowed to go smelly on you whenever the wind blows south. Ideally, you should be in control of your rough draft at all times. But it happens, drafts get stuck, and when they do it probably looks something like this:
1. You started out with a clean plan and good focus, wrote straight through to the end, but then realized the story has no umph, no pow, no meat on its ribs and you have no idea how to add stuff without stretching it,
2. You started out soused in inspiration and crazy energy, explored and expanded and wrote like there was no tomorrow, but then realized the story has no direction, no backbone to sustain the flab, and shoot-me-square you’ve got no freakin clue how to straighten it up!
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Well, these two seemingly opposite problems are actually two sides of a toast. Both have the same basic cause, the same underlying trouble, and that is where the solution comes from. The common denominator of these two problems is a mismanagement of story elements.
Usually you’re taught how to generate more and more story ideas and components. There a lot of information out there about how to brainstorm nifty elements to enrich your story, but most of them add unnecessary fluff that no reader really wants to get force fed with. I hear there’s a valuable lesson to be learned from acting classes and drama script writing: how to use only a handful of elements to create rich stories. The key to do this is reincorporation.
Reincorporation of story elements basically means recycling of used story material within that same story, and it’s a great thing. I first came across a clear explanation of this concept in Roz Morris’ Nail Your Novel, and it hit me like a kamikaze pigeon on a Sunday afternoon in the park.
Say you have a few basic story elements, such as a mortuary, a picture, an insurance salesman, a pigeon, My Heart Will Go On by Celine Dion and a baby. If you were to create a scene with these elements on the spot, the temptation would be to incorporate them all at once and see from there. Let’s see…
*damn, couldn’t I have picked something that made sense?!*
Okay. Here we go.
A coroner is investigating the cause of death of a young insurance salesman. It’s raining heavily outside, and spattering through the open mortuary window. There’s news of yet another car accident, and the coroner turns the radio off. He searches the salesman’s pockets, and finds a picture of him with a wife and baby. Lightning cracks the sky open, making him wince. He slams the window shut, shooing a scruffy pigeon away from the windowsill. In the silence, he tries to hum to the tune of My Heart Will Go On as he works.
Now, I know this ain’t brilliant, but at least it’s got everything in it and creates some emotional engagement. Well, I hope it does. But the story is meager, it hasn’t got enough cheese on the plate, and in order to make it richer we must add more elements. But then where do we go from here? All elements have been included, so in order to go on we also need to create new elements. And then new ones when those have been used, and so on. We’re moving from one story element to the next, like a frog leaping from lily to lily to cross the lake. Mmm… leaping frogs… man, I loved that game! *hehe*
If you keep adding more and more new things, the reader will get annoyed. The secret is to reuse the elements you’ve already got, to reincorporate them into the story—recycle your stuff!
So… let’s say…
An insurance salesman is walking down the street on a hot summer day, worrying about his meager pay. He can barely manage now his wife got the baby. He wipes the sweat off his face, and rings at the next door. A man opens but says it’s a mortuary and there’s no one in need of insurances there, and he slams the door shut in the salesman’s face. It’s even hotter outside now, and no one’s on the street except for the birds. A pigeon flies overhead and craps on the salesman’s shoulder. He drops his suitcase and sits on the doorstep of the mortuary. With a sigh, he pulls out a picture of his wife and baby and stares at it, as the sun burns him through the clothes. Then the door creaks opens again, and the coroner asks him in. Apparently he could use an extra insurance himself, given the many fatal car accidents of late. The salesman picks up his briefcase and hurries into the cool, clean air of the mortuary. My Heart Will Go On is playing on the radio, and the salesman tucks the picture of his baby back into his breast pocket, as the coroner fills out the new insurance form. He smiles at a pair of pigeons cuddling on the windowsill.
By returning to a known element, you give the feeling of continuity and consistency. Reincorporation is giving a the reader a very satisfying payoff for the attention she’s paid, because by reusing elements you already presented, she feels involved and rewarded.
This works especially well in longer fiction, such as novellas, novels and series. Some reused elements might even become motifs, or coalesce into your throughline, the red thread that keeps long fiction together.
So every time you’re tempted to invent new things to flesh out your story or take it further, first check if you can bring back any of your old elements and reincorporate them.
This blog post is part of the A to Z Blogging Challenge, April 2012