What to put in, what to take out
Excerpt from part two of The Fiction Editor, The Novel, and the Novelist By Thomas McCormack: diagnosis requires sensibility and craft
Another diagnostic question that may point to a situation problem: is the narrative too austerely narrow, too bony-lean and singular? Of course that's exactly where the greatness lies in some novels and plays. But others that we can all recall have been rounded and enriched by counterpoints and subplots that we'd now be horrified to see cut out. The great chef will sometimes serve up his main course in regal solitude; there it is, nothing on it and nothing near it. But other times he realizes its best qualities will be brought out only by a garnish—an additional taste that complements in some way. Sensibility is the arbiter, but the best editors will be attentive and open-minded enough to pick up even a whisper from sensibility: "(We need a complication!)"
And he must have at his fingertips a range of complications. Give Joel a conflict within himself. Or have Jaime bent on destroying Joel. Or have Jaime indifferent toward Joel except he wants the same piece of land, or a different use for it. Or even consider blind conflict: An abduction team closes in on its prey, unaware that an assassination team is approaching the same pray from another direction entirely.
At the heart of situation are its energizers. "Select!" say the writing books—but they never give clear advice about how to approach that task. "Theme" aside, the needs of an efficient setting-cum-characters are the best guides. What will be the most energizing wiring design among the various elements? Historical novelists, with bushel baskets of "fascinating" research compiled, are liable to cram the setting with data that doesn't galvanize anyone. A good historical novelist faces a dilemma. He wants to guide himself by the principle that what is not an energizer should be minimalized or eliminated entirely, while at the same time realizing that the ideal intended readers of historical novels are different from thriller fans who love to live on the edge of their seats. An energizer must come with sufficient information so that we know why it brings a jolt and to whom, but the editor must be alert to when furnishing has become clutter. This isn't always easy, but the good sensibility will recognize when the extensive description of the surrounding bric-a-brac is solely the author's infatuated encumbering cataloging, rather than a necessary presentation—if we are to feel why Maud loves her mansion so. (See later the brief remarks on the Thomas Wolfe—Scott Fitzgerald dispute about putter-inners and taker-outers.)
It grows fatter each time I rewrite it!
Before moving on, I should mention a painful danger to authors who have the otherwise laudable gifts of prolonged tenacity and a readiness to rewrite. John Updike, in reviewing an effort by another gifted novelist, conveyed it this way: "Perhaps the novel . . . was too long in the working, and accumulated an awkward number of subsidiary inspirations." The longer the author dwells on his main character or some aspect of the setting, the more episodes he is liable to invent—or, if the tale is somewhat autobiographical, liable to recall. All of them are likely to feel relevant—convincing him he is making his novel "richer and richer". He may even shake his head in wonder: He almost left this out, and in fact it saves the novel!
What makes his position vexingly interesting is this: He is unlikely to be entirely wrong, because the rightness or wrongness depends not on the book but the audience. There's a vast readership out there that prefers a relaxed, overstuffed narrative full of engaging small detail. They don't demand that every line in the book "advance the action". They're interested in the novel's plot, but that's not primarily what they read for. They're fascinated to learn about life in a new land or a by-gone era; they like spending time with intriguing "new people"; or they are absorbed by seeing the inner workings of a familiar but mysterious industry—how a movie is made, a hotel managed, a new airplane created. For most readers the primary attraction of Memoirs of a Geisha was not its plot.
Hollywood—admirably dramatic and concise
Hollywood and Broadway, at their approvable best, have always been more keenly alert to story failings than Publishers' Row. They turn away from novels in which the issue is: Why did Henry break the teacup? They are wary of sagas—the narratives spanning a couple of generations. They are sometimes wrong about this, but when they see lines like, "Two years later. . ." "Eight years passed . . ." it means to them that there's obviously no ongoing problem of high temperature. Hollywood is easy to parody: picture a nineteen-year-old studio chief with dark green glasses alternately sucking on a cigar and a lollipop as he yammers, "Where's the jeopardy!? What's the twist?" Many easterners look at Hollywood with the eyes of prejudice—they will condemn Robert McKee and his book Story without ever reading it. But the truth is some prodigies of storytelling have been produced out there—albeit while committing what the book community considers outrageous sins. For example, Tootsie had so many writers even the Writers Guild couldn't figure out how to count them. Damon and Affleck won an Oscar for writing Good Will Hunting, but not a single scene in the published edition of the screenplay appears unaltered in the movie. It may be a publisher's heresy to say so, but the story structure of the film The Silence of the Lambs is better than that of the novel, and individual scenes written by Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese for The Age of Innocence are, in their economy—knowing when the scene's job is done—superior to Edith Wharton's originals. Consider the day-to-day news. The events frequently have a "drama" that comes solely from the "characters" being real people, but every once in a while the doings unfold in a fashion that would make for a seizing story even if it were fiction. Novel-editors should study such phenomenon tp discern why that is so. . . "Dramatize! Show don't tell!"—precepts that are necessarily the spine of stageplay and film structure.
If the pursuit of the picaresque is the vice of the superficial (as Melvin Seiden said), then Hollywood at its worst is one end of a spectrum: bonging clocks; wildeyed, director-crazed horses hopping like puppies; 'production values' brocading miles of celluloid into pizza (Bankhead said of Maeterlinck: "There is less to this than meets the eye"); action frantically fisted on like vindicating ketchup. You've read the comic strip, now see the movie. But at the other end of that spectrum there are books, lots of them, with no jeopardy, twists, clocks, horses, production values, or ketchup at all. Some of these nevertheless achieve wondrously a satisfying rightness, while many more are stillborn, prematurely ripped forth, too undeveloped to survive. A good editor might have saved some.
. . . features that distinguish our industry from Hollywood, unhappy: if ever it were the case that what the script desperately does need is a spicy stallion, it's unlikely that anyone on editorial row would consistently know it.