During Clarion, I coined the phrase “busking on the wrong corner” to describe the phenomenon of “entertaining writing that doesn’t serve the story.” It’s the reason writers have to kill their darlings. It’s the trap that stops a lot of good writers from making the transition to great.
“Busking” is the practice of playing in public spaces for donations – you know, that guy playing the guitar, his guitar case open before him, full of scattered singles and quarters. Buskers are often some of the most talented musicians. But the buskers’ art is also partially a knowledge of where the crowds are.
You can sing your fucking heart out on a corner where there’s no foot traffic. If you’re really good, you might make a few bucks. But if you’re really good and really smart, you’ll position yourself near the subway where people are pouring out by the hundreds as rush hour ends, a place where even a mediocre musician can clean up. Part of your strength is not just the raw force of your musicianship, but knowing where to place that skill so it’s maximized with silver rains of spare change.
Writers (me included, oh so included) are often putting their talents to use on the wrong corner. This chapter is brilliant writing, it’s got great characterization, it’s exciting. But underneath, the scene is at odds with what the story is trying to do, and what you’ll wind up with is a great scene that advances the story in the wrong ways.
Lemme give you the real-life example: the lead character of the novel I’m plotting right now, Autumn Akeley, is a taxidermist. In the beginning of the book, Autumn is deep in the woods on a rumor, searching for the Hulk.
Why the Hulk, you ask? Because she’s not just any taxidermist – she makes wild viral videos online parodying recent movies in order to drive business to her online taxidermy shop. Autumn’s latest planned video (“The Bearvengers”) needs a gigantic, light-skinned animal she can dye green to play the part of the Hulk. Autumn does not kill animals for her entertainment (she takes the death of any creature very seriously), but she just got a tip from a hunter that there’s a decaying grizzly in the woods she might be able to use. She tracks it down with her friend Karla and examines the corpse – it’s a little too moldy for her liking, but it has very light fur. She thinks she can salvage it.
Then a shot rings out across the forest: there are poachers in the woods. As someone who hates to see an animal killed senselessly, she does not take lightly to poachers. She sets off to investigate, starting the chain of events that sets up the novel….
…Now, that’s a pretty good scene. It’s got an interesting character doing something we’ve never seen done before in a book, it displays her odd compulsions, it allows us to watch her work (if you have a character with an odd profession, people love to see the fine details), and for a short intro it’ll do quite nicely.
And yet we are busking badly here. Why?
Because this novel is about Autumn’s friendship with Karla.
Okay, unfair, I didn’t tell you that – but the whole point of the novel is that a new man in town with a shadowy past begins to romance Karla, causing a rift when Autumn discovers the man’s past as a serial killer. And this scene, while good in a vacuum, utterly fails to set up the dynamics of Karla and Autumn and their friendship. In fact, you’d be excused for forgetting the existence of Karla in this summary, because while we can put in some nice dialogue and characterization to set up Karla’s character, the underlying structure of the scene is not about her at all.
This is a great scene for a novel featuring bold Autumn Akeley, bold adventurer. It’s a terrible scene for Autumn and Karla’s big fight – especially since the next scene involves Autumn tracking down poachers, which has even less to do with their friendship. And if you’re not a careful writer, you’ll think this is an awesome scene because it’s got it all – humor, good characterization, a quick hook to action – without realizing that it’s an awesome scene that’s structurally at odds with what you want to do in the long run. It doesn’t set up the things that need to be established.
It’s a good scene in isolation. In context, it’s a darling that needs to be killed… Or at least dramatically changed so that Karla does something so interesting here that the scene metamorphosizes away from Autumn’s search for the Hulk and into an expression of how Autumn and Karla couldn’t get along without each other.
The point I’m making here is that had I written that chapter, I’d have been very proud. It’d be a nice, 1,500 word opener that would grab the reader, full of lovely details and fun stuff.
And then I’d have to place it into my trash folder, because ultimately it doesn’t do what it needs to, then hunt for the right scene to write.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.