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Marginal Notes

Editing's Eternal Verities

A lot of what I do involves helping writers give readers what they expect, and what readers expect has changed over the years. Many modern novels include sex scenes or language that would have gotten them banned sixty or seventy years ago. Movies and television have made readers less patient with leisurely story development than they used to be. Even little things like tolerance for –ly adverbs has evolved over time.

But it’s worth looking at the principles of storytelling seem to hold steady, even while others shift with the culture. These editorial constants are a way to understand what stories really are and how writers habitually go wrong in telling them. If your storytelling is out of step with your times, then updating your skills is not a serious problem. But when you’re out of step with the ages, then you're facing something more fundamental, and harder to fix.

For instance, writers have apparently always been partially blind to how well their writing comes across to their readers. This leads them to include either too much detail or too little. In Mark Twain’s epic 1895 takedown of James Fennimore Cooper, Twain lists a series of literary “rules” that Cooper violates. For instance, an author shall:

12. Say what he [or she] is proposing to say, not merely come near it.
13. Use the right word, not its second cousin.
14. Eschew surplusage.
15. Not omit necessary details.

Twain shows how to apply these principles in a second essay (published posthumously in 1946), in which he actually line-edits a paragraph of Cooper, improving it substantially by simply removing nearly a third of the words. Many of his edits yank out elaborations of points that are already obvious and unnecessary descriptions of emotion, something I still do a lot of today. His cuts are in italics.

In a minute he was once more fastened to the tree, a helpless object of any insult or wrong that might be offered. So eagerly did every one now act, that nothing was said. The fire was immediately lighted in the pile, and the end of all was anxiously expected. It was not the intention of the Hurons absolutely to destroy the life of their victim by means of fire. They designed merely to put his physical fortitude to the severest proofs it could endure, short of that extremity. In the end, they fully intended to carry his scalp into their village, but it was their wish first to break down his resolution, and to reduce him to the level of a complaining sufferer. With this view, the pile of brush and branches had been placed at a proper distance, one at which it was thought the heat would soon become intolerable, though it might not be immediately dangerous. As often happened, however, on these occasions, this distance had been miscalculated, and the flames began to wave their forked tongues in a proximity to the face of the victim that would have proved fatal in another instant had not Hetty rushed through the crowd, armed with a stick, and scattered the blazing pile in a dozen directions. More than one hand was raised to strike the presumptuous intruder to the earth; but the chiefs prevented the blows by reminding their irritated followers of the state of her mind. Hetty, herself, was insensible to the risk she ran; but, as soon as she had performed this bold act, she stood looking about her in frowning resentment, as if to rebuke the crowd of attentive savages for their cruelty.
"God bless you, dearest sister, for that brave and ready act," murmured Judith, herself unnerved so much as to be incapable of exertion; "Heaven itself has sent you on its holy errand."

More than a century later, I don’t think I could have done much better myself.

We’ve talked before about how class used to play a much larger role in society that it does today. A literary by-product of class consciousness was that writers often used heavy dialectical spellings to remind readers that their lower-class characters were buffoons. Even in this enlightened age, I still come across this problem from time to time and cut it without mercy. I thought the death of dialectic spellings was a matter of style catching up with social change. Until I found the following critique of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones in the introduction to a 1752 edition of a historical novel – Robert Goadby’s An Apology for the Life of Mr. Bampfylde-Moore Carew, Commonly call’d The King of the Beggars. After some fairly sarcastic praise of Fielding for daring to write “after nature” (i.e. using dialectical spellings to capture lower-class accents), Goadby writes:

So Virgil makes Meliboeus [a simple shepherd] say:
Tityre tu patulae, recubans sub tegmine fagi,
Silvestrem tenui Musam meditaris avena.

Now, Sir, if Virgil had but understood the Art of Writing after Nature half as well as you, he would to be sure have wrote it thus,

Titeroous te patoole, reckqubance cub tagmanne faggy,
Cylvasterm tenooi Moozam meddytearies aveena.

Evidently there were some critics, even when class consciousness was at its peak, who thought that all of a writer’s characters should be people rather than comic plot devices.

Then there’s the problem of antagonists who are so evil that they cease to be sympathetic. I’ve written about this problem a number of times. Well, someone else noticed it a long time ago.

Nor, again, should the downfall of the utter villain be exhibited [in fiction]. A plot of this kind would, doubtless, satisfy the moral sense, but it would inspire neither pity nor fear; for pity is aroused by unmerited misfortune, fear by the misfortune of a man like ourselves. Such an event, therefore, will be neither pitiful nor terrible.

In other words, as Aristotle wrote in his Poetics (p. 65) 2300 years or so ago, when your antagonists are too evil, readers can’t sympathize with them and won’t care what happens to them.

What I find most surprising about the work of my editorial forebears is not that some storytelling principles are unchanging. After all, stories have been meeting the same human needs ever since we started using scratches on clay tablets to keep track of how many sheep we owned, then decided the scratches could also tell the tale of a king named Gilgamesh. The thing I find remarkable is that writers have been making the same mistakes for more than two millennia. Apparently, the simple act of writing has always had built-in pitfalls.

Writers are inherently too close to their work to judge how well it comes across. This is why it’s a good idea to set your work aside for a while, or have someone else look it over.

It’s always been much easier to turn minor characters into plot devices – whether through dialectical spellings or other means – than to make them as well-rounded as your main characters. So stop and look at your story as it appears to your various minor characters – what they know about events and how they feel and act about them. If there isn’t a consistent, human response in their part in the story, then you may have to get to know that character better.

And it’s always been easier to go for “satisfying the moral sense” – heroic heroes, villainous villains – rather than to let your beloved characters harbor flaws or really come to understand your bad guys. So if your protagonist never does anything they would be embarrassed to have known, or you can’t put yourself in the head of your antagonist and understand how they feel, then you have some rethinking to do.

As I say, adjusting your writing to the expectations of the moment isn’t that hard. But when you’re facing problems that have been around for centuries, you’re up against some basic hardships in the art of storytelling. Be prepared to put in the work you need to in order to overcome them.

And if you can’t? Well, given how persistent some of these problems can be, at least I’ll always have a job.