Most pieces of writing advice have a flip side, especially since most pieces of writing advice can be interpreted multiple ways. One of my favorites to shake my head over is “omit unnecessary words.”
Kids, it’s the unnecessary words that make a story come to life.
The things that feel necessary to you but are unnecessary to other people: that’s style. (Tim said that, and I think he’s right.) That doesn’t mean that you should slather on adverbs. It means that you’re the one who sees from your eyes, and that has repercussions in every inch of the story.
Let’s talk about Ghostbusters. Say you’re trying to describe the very first Ghostbusters movie, what it’s about, who’s in it. If you were trying to do it from scratch from a plot or characters, you could set it anywhere. You could set it in an everycity Gotham. And in fact Tim and I entertained ourselves mightily imagining Venkman or Stantz going around the US selling rights to Ghostbusters franchises and what those would be like–the Chicago franchise laying Old Lady Leary’s ghost to rest, the very bored Cedar Rapids, IA, franchise, and of course the giant, shifting, almost completely African-American and Seminole cast of hundreds that is the New Orleans chapter of the Ghostbusters. (Anybody who would not watch Ghostbusters: New Orleans for at least, like, six seasons, do not bother to notify me, just see yourself quietly out.)
And y’know–New York is not the oldest American city. It’s not the ghost-iest. (See above re: NEW ORLEANS.) What it was–was the city that the people who were making that movie at that time needed to write a love song to. It was the extra part they brought with them. That kind of extra that is not strictly necessary makes all the other parts sing. It gets you up the Statue of Liberty instead of the Sears Tower at the end. Instead of up the CN Tower, or instead of out in the harbor on the Constitution, or instead of on the Ambassador Bridge, or wherever your love song to your city takes you.*
Because this stuff is extra. It really is. You leave it out of the synopsis for a reason. Because if you put in your synopsis, “Dear Editor and/or Agent: This book is about how much I love my city, or my mother, or that color the sky turns when the sun is gone but it’s not quite night yet,” it doesn’t help them know whether you’ve pulled it off, and it makes them suspect you didn’t do the other bits. So you have to say the necessary bits, the “This movie is about four men who love each other very much even though one of them is a jerk and they just met another one, and they make slimy ghosts go away and have witty banter” part.
But if you didn’t bring the part that didn’t look necessary, no one’s going to care.
If every part of the story is a part where you could have handed someone the plot synopsis and they’d do it the same as you, well, let ’em try.
People phrase this as “tell the story only you can tell,” but then they go on to talk about there only being [2, 3, 4, N] plots in the world. It’s not the necessary parts that are going to be yours alone. It’s the stuff that seems like it could get filed off and it wouldn’t matter. You write with the messy stuff that seems like it’s optional. The whole thing is optional. Except when it turns out it isn’t. Except when it’s a darn good thing it isn’t.
*The Lake Harriet Rose Garden, most recently. I know, I was as surprised as you are. Well, maybe not quite as surprised, if you’re not from here and don’t even know we have a Lake Harriet Rose Garden. But still pretty surprised.