The Will to Kill
My daughter, Amelia, is a fifth-year senior in the RIT Game Development Program. The program is rigorous and punishing and coursework mirrors the pressures and difficulties of fast-paced game development cycles. Creative ideas, technical approaches, and artistic styles are regularly screened and either ‘red-lighted’ or ‘green-lighted’ as projects proceed or die. The question of what lives and what dies in a finished work is an important one for any artist. A certain ruthlessness is involved in the cutting process – ‘the will to kill’ as my cutthroat daughter puts it. I take a little responsibility for having instilled in her ‘the will to kill’, but I am certainly not entirely responsible for all of her murderous tendencies.
The same process is effective in editing a novel. Each scene must be examined for its contribution to the whole. Scenes develop character, setting or plot. The best scenes do all three, and failing to do all three is why a lot of otherwise good writing gets the axe. Editing is where brutal honesty from yourself and others is imperative. The question must be asked: Does the scene in question develop the three required elements: character, setting and plot? If not, then the writing is too thin to be left in.
When I evaluate my own work I imagine each scene, each conversational thread, and each chapter, as a braided rope. If you examine a strong rope you will find it braided with at least three strands, those strands again braided in threes, and so on. I look for what I call ‘the rule of three’s’ when I’m testing my writing for strength. I judge that there must be at least three elements present in each piece of writing. The writing must – simultaneously - perform at least three of any of the following functions:
1) Provide background information
2) Develop character
3) Move the plot forward
4) Make an emotion tangible
5) Create tension, drama, or micro-tension
6) Set a scene
7) Pose a question
8) Answer a question
As an example here is a brief bit from The Summer Set:
"Have you figured out how the trick is going to work yet?"
"I want to do a trick that has never been done before. I want to burn somebody alive, and bring them back from the dead."
"That doesn't sound like a good idea. Why does fire always figure in your imagination?"
This snippet of conversation does a lot of work. Character develops – Chumbucket is cautious, doubtful; Mike is a risk-taker, an impresario; the plot moves forward to include Mike’s magic show as a climatic element; emotions are tangible; tension and drama are created; a question naturally pops into the reader’s mind – will someone be burned alive? You’ll have to read on to find out! In conclusion, remember to braid story elements with at least three strands and learn to exercise your ‘will to kill’. Don’t trust weak narrative ropes to support your story if you intend to challenge the Everest of writing, the novel.