Serving the Story

So here is my first blog where I polled Twitter for what to write about. Serving the Story narrowing overtook World-Building, so I’ll start here and do World-Building next (it kinda works thematically anyway)

I was asked the question “what do you mean by serve the story?” which is a great starting point. (I’m going to use StS for a shorthand at times). StS is a piece of advice often thrown around when people talk about how every piece of a work must “StS” it’s also something I use very very often (without much justification) when talking about how to make decisions about your prose, plot, or other aspects of a story.

So what the check do I mean?

A good way to look at it is having all the material in your work, whether it be short of long-form having a purpose towards the greater whole. Ok that probably sounded like some sort of communist or collectivist manifesto! More specifically its about the words, sentences, scenes in your story working together to make a good story. It we were talking movies it would be about the movie not having any scenes that made you wonder what the point of it was.

One of the reasons that this is useful to talk about especially in novel-length works there is a tendency to meander. This isn’t immediately wrong in itself, after all maybe the story calls for meandering. BUT, it can be a tricky balance between aimless wandering and useful story serving stuff. What I personally find quite confusing is that pretty much any good writing advice source will tell you that filler is a massive no-no, yet so many professional, brilliant published works seem to have a reasonable amount of filler.

Or do they?

The tricky thing with story serving is that material can StS is many different ways, sometimes subtly, sometimes only gently pushing the narrative along. I have seen people interpret the advice ‘to only include relevant information’ to mean that novels must travel at breakneck speed with closely packed plot points Anyone who has read most published novels know this isn’t the case.

To explain I’m going to explain how different elements of a story can serve it, AND some different levels of servitude which I think might help.

It’s probably a timely moment to remind people of a disclaimer, these are just my thoughts on the topic, they are based on a lot of reading both of fiction and fiction writing advice books, interacting with other writers, agents and editors and just generally stewing on these topics within my own head. I’m not spouting gospel, although be assured that I’m not just spewing nonsense!

Let’s start with levels.

Often a story is layered and complex, built from story beats (individual moments or movements of the story) scenes sequences and plots.

When people think that only including relevant material to their plot means fast-paced writing they are only looking at the overarching main plot points and thinking they have to rush those through, when in truth its okay to focus on the smaller units of scenes and beats.

For example most scenes start with some sort of ‘setting-the-scene’ sequence. Again this is far more obvious on movies where any particular scene usually has a few moments of setup, say before the hero smashes through a wall to fight the villain. These parts might not seem like they serve the ‘plot’ but they most definitely serve the individual scenes, which in turn does serve the overall story.

I’m not sure how well I’ve explained that so here goes an attempt clarification, a story is like a house of cards, a cool looking complex setup that relies on individual card placement, structural shapes, as well as a great overall design. You can’t build a house of cards by simply thinking about the final product, you need to place each card precisely, and you need to build them up in the right order to get the final construction.

Your story is no different, to get the overall effect you need to focus on individual moments and scenes and put them together to create the overall story. Sometimes material in a book which seems like filler, is stuff that builds an individual moment or that particular scene, it might not seem ultra relevant to the overall plot, except that overall plot needs that scene in place to ‘work.’

In short there won’t always be a direct line between the immediate material you’re penning and the ‘big’ story.

So let’s talk about a couple of different story elements.

The other way I think people get overwhelmed is trying to link everything to the overt or practical plot of the story which can get confusing at times. My thesis is that there are different ways that elements of story contribute, and this is important to grasp because I believe this is how a novel length work gets fleshed out, without just being filled with ‘filler.’

Character:

We all talk about character development like we know what we’re talking about (well I do and don’t respectively). In my opinion getting characters right is one of the most challenging parts of fiction. Randomly generating traits and motives and whatnot is easy, but working out how to develop said character in a story is devilishly hard. My understanding of how to work character development in to serve a story is to show what about them is related to the story at hand, and how it currently or will challenge them. Lord of the Rings (the book mind you) is often criticized for spending such lengthy pages with Frodo not leaving the Shire, yet this setup creates the suspense of how important the Shire is to Frodo which deepens the tension and sadness of the story’s conclusion. Often novels seem to drag slowly for initial chapters, however a lot of the focus in often on ensuring the reading knows the character(s) and knows thing about them relevant to that story.

For example heroes are often shown doubting themselves, morally challenged MC’s are shown to do wrong and so forth.

Character development serves the story by deepening what the plot means to it’s victims…

Setting:

I’m going to race through a few of these other points because I’m starting to drone on. Setting very much serves the story by grounding the tale. One of my biggest flaws in novel writing at the moment is that I tend to rush the story starting, before there is a strong sense of where everything is happening or more importantly a sense that the story is taking place somewhere ‘real.’

As a final word serving your story is a lot more straightforward if you have a good idea of what the story is. This isn’t to poo-poo pansters or gardeners but just a caution that at some point it really helps if you have a firm idea at least of what sort of tale you’re telling, then you can always reflect on how any individual part works towards that whole.

It’s my first writing blog for a while, and my first polled topic! Hopefully it’s not too rambling and disastrous. Next time I’m having a go at: World-Building!

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I could not find an approps pictures so here’s a “Raven Cycle” pun

2 thoughts on “Serving the Story

  1. I often notice a great deal of filler material in high fantasy novels, usually in the form of traveling places or the development of new routines before the next conflict comes around. Ultimately, it seems that “serving the story” is highly subjective. In one book I finished recently (“Our Dark Duet” by Victoria Schwab), some reviewers complained that the beginning was slow because it mostly focused on character development. But I love that stuff! To me, it was valuable to see the internal struggles of the protagonists, but to those other readers looking for constant action, it felt unnecessary.

    You can’t please everyone, but as you implied, it’s important to assess each scene and determine what *purpose* it’s serving in terms of character, plot, and atmosphere. A good story somehow manages to accomplish all three, I suppose! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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