So I’m revisiting an older novel of mine when I realize I have two, count them two, expository phone conversations between the same two and a half characters (it makes sense in context) in one chapter.
Well, that’s inefficient, I think. There must be a way of combining them.
So I pull them both out and start in. Except it becomes obvious after about ten seconds that there are two of them because they refer to two different events, separated by some distance, which happen to the parties on the phone. And at some point in the manuscript’s history, for some reason, I switched the order of the events.
For reference, this is like the writer’s version of that nightmare where you’re taking a final for a class you forgot to attend. And you have no pants. And the bats swooping down at you are quoting Milton.*
Cursing the inattentive author, I laid the triggering events, the conversations, and the transitions between them out in six different documents, like a watchmaker spreading the gears out on a cloth.
And when I finished, I had some gears left over. They must have been doing something, right? Or maybe not. To switch analogies, sometimes a sentence or an exchange in a conversation or even a whole paragraph is like one of those interstate exits out in the country that says: No Services. While this may accurately reflect real life, fiction is not journalism (though good journalism knows what is relevant to the story as well).
The superfluous passages that are trickier to spot (and I didn’t get this about the novel in question until I did my watchmaker imitation) are the ones that ARE doing something, but not something you need, at least not right there. To flip back to the interstate exit analogy, it’s like being low on gas and seeing exits that have food, lodging, camping, a hospital, a historic district, and a community theater–but which manage to be entirely devoid of gas stations.
And if there’s one thing you don’t want your story to do, it’s run out of gas.
*-Everyone has that dream, right?