When writing an essay or a short story or flash fiction, it’s imperative that every word count. The limited space requires every character, description, and word to carry weight. When writing a novel, it can be easy to allow all that empty space to lure you into indulging that secondary character’s wood working hobby or the mother-in-law’s invitation to Sunday brunch. But, it is just as important that every scene, every character, every moment in your novel move the story forward with the same weight that they carry in a shorter work.
Why? Because it all matters. If it doesn’t matter it distracts the reader.
It may distract them into thinking a sub plot is important when it’s not or from assuming that wacky neighbor has something to do with the plot’s mystery or, heaven forbid, distract them from caring about your protagonist’s journey. Either way, at the end of the story, something won’t sit right with the reader and they will be left unsatisfied.
I saw a version of this over the weekend in a fluffy holiday movie. A Castle for Christmas on Netflix was just the predictable fun I was in need of while recovering from my COVID booster shot. Brooke Shields plays Sophie, a recently divorced best-selling author who has a meltdown on national television when her fans protest her killing off a favorite character from her popular series. To avoid the backlash and focus on her next project, she escapes to the town in Scotland her father lived in as a boy wanting to see the castle he always told stories about.
The castle, headed for bankruptcy, is owned by Myles, a duke played by Cary Elwes. Sophie buys the castle and is determined to write her next novel in the beautiful library while the Duke figures he can scare her off by putting her in the worst room and making her life miserable. I think we can all see where this is headed (I mean, there is tartan and kilts and a cute pup named Hamish, if it doesn’t end up where we think it will why are we even watching?).
The majority of the characters (even the pub’s knitting club and the Duke’s best friend/castle tour guide) and action do drive the story forward. Each decision or misunderstanding leads to the next decision or misunderstanding. Everything is moving along at a fine clip UNTIL…somewhere in the montage scenes of planning for the upcoming Christmas Eve party at the castle, an eccentric looking couple checks into the village inn. The innkeeper, who must leave the action of the main plot to tend to her guests, tells them only the Romance Package is left. “Oh, that’s fine,” the woman coos. On to the next scene.
But wait. Who are they? Are they important? Is it Sophie’s ex-husband and new fiancé we hear about from Sophie’s daughter? Is it a banker who could throw a wrench into the various plans afoot? A childhood friend of Sophie’s father? An old flame of the Duke’s?
We never find out. We never see the pair in the movie again. And here it is, days later since I watched it, and I’m still wondering why they were important enough for a scene. With speaking lines! And a romance package!
My brain automatically totaled up a number of possible reasons they were there the moment they came on screen and when nothing closed that loop, I was left still wondering.
It has me thinking about all the scenes in my novel as I consider another major revision. Does it matter? Does it advance the plot or the protagonist’s journey? Does it serve a purpose? Or is it just a wayward traveler looking for a room?
The fact of the matter is in your novel, there can be no room in the inn for characters or scenes that don’t serve that purpose.
Make sure your guests are all invited.