I used to think a complex plot was the sign of a brilliant writer; the harder I work at writing, the more I think the opposite true –a brilliant writer can pare down their story to focus on what matters most.
I should know. I have to do this regularly.
My problem is keeping the focus narrow. I start out writing a book with a plot twist or scene I want to reach in mind, and new characters and subplots creep in and pull me in too many different directions, leaving me feeling overwhelmed and unsure how to tie everything together… until I have a “come to Jesus” writing moment and start ruthlessly cutting everything that doesn’t work: dead plot lines, flat characters, good ideas that don’t belong. I kill “my darlings,” so the main plot and main characters can shine brighter and have more focus and depth.
So, when I say Fantastic Beasts 2 disappointed me… I say it with love, because Rowling no longer knows how to “kill her darlings.” I found her first three books tight, well-plotted, and fantastic. Then came The Goblet of Fire, which was longer than the rest with more subplots. I was okay with this, because I love the Tri-Wizarding Tournament. But page by page, Rowling’s stories started getting longer. More out of hand. More characters. Even padded. When the first Fantastic Beasts came out, I loved it, even though it wasn’t perfect. I thought the limited running time would force her to stay focused.
I was wrong.
Fantastic Beasts 2 left me disappointed. I saw the best of Rowling glinting under the hot mess – the stuff she does best, the wonderful moments of pure character “magic.” But she tried to tell so many stories at the same time, none had much screen time, so there was almost no character development, which made the plot reveals stacked at the end emotionless, and many of the scenes had nothing to do with one another. I got lost. And it broke my heart, because there was so much potential lost in the chaos.
Every writer needs someone to tell them “no.” They need someone to tell them to shave their plots. Authors are not objective. They think, “My characters are great. My plot lines are great. I need every one of them…” No, they do not. If I step back from a manuscript, put myself in a reader’s shoes, and realize they’ll feel lost and confused, because I am lost and confused… then I have to face the truth: I have too much plot.
If you remove a character and need not rewrite extensively to fill the hole they left behind… you did not need them. I have to thank a friend who read my second draft of The Usurper’s Throne and said, “You don’t need Sir Thomas More.”
I felt injured. I LIKED Thomas More. His wit. His banter. His intuition.
Then I took him out. And realized nothing changed. His scenes were there because I liked and wanted to include him, not because he contributed to the plot. I miss not having him there, but the story did not need him. It still does not. He will come in when it’s time.
That was a hard lesson for me to learn.
Rowling has made me learn it again. I saw her hot mess and came home to face mine. I arrived defeated. I looked at my work in progress, then took out a notebook and wrote down my plot. It’s far too complicated. So I chopped things.
It wasn’t enough. I still had too many subplots.
I asked myself the question I’d forgotten along the way. Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? Every character / scene / development has to deepen understanding of these characters and their struggle or further the main plot / subplot.
And… a bunch more subplots fell away.
I stand looking at the naked bones of a novel. Part of me feels sick with frustration. 80,000+ words I now have to gut, rearrange, remove, and stick in a “save for later in case I want to use the subplot” folder. But another part of me sighed with relief. Stripped to the core with no distractions, I can write about Edda and her father and her fondness for the boy, Tristan. I can write about Henry VII, the looming force over their lives. It will deepen all their plot arcs. I don’t need the rest.
I just wonder when, exactly, I am going to learn to do this sooner.