Thursday, July 15, 2010

That awesome line you just wrote...

Sometimes, you write a line and you just love it. It has that ring that gets you right in the heart as a writer. It's either the perfect thing for that character, or awesome for that scene, or maybe it just jazzes you up because it sounds so good.

I wrote one like that a couple of days ago. I'll share it just for fun - it's from a piece I'm working on that is set in Heian-era Japan:

Foxes were passable poets, though I'd never known any of their clan to grow flowers at will.

For whatever reason, that line made me unreasonably happy. Which is why I was shocked and dismayed when I realized that the scene needed to be altered and I was about to destroy the context in which it had appeared.

Kill your darlings, they say, but if you just know the line is right, what should you do?

First things first: never ignore story structure, no matter how much you like that line. If the scene can be strengthened or redirected to maintain the line, feel free to do that, but be careful not to slap bandaids on and call it good. If the structure of the story won't support it, you could be killing your story drive, which is a far worse thing than losing the beautiful line. So if you can't justify keeping the scene, then the line has to go...

...somewhere else.

Hey, if you love the line, don't just delete it! Take a few steps to see whether you can keep it in another place.

1. Ask yourself what the line is doing for the story. In my case, the line about foxes is functioning to enhance the setting, and the sense of the narrator's personality. If it's not doing anything, it may simply not belong.

2. Ask yourself if the function performed by that line might work in another location. I happen to have found a spot where I think the line works as internalization that follows a line of dialogue earlier in the scene.

3. If you can't find an alternate spot right away, put the line aside in a place where you'll be able to find it. Maybe that place is the tail end of your file; maybe it's in a separate file of lines that are looking for a home. You might hit on another good place for it, in which case you know where to find it. And if you don't, it's still there for you and might someday work in another story. Not sure how I'd write another story with foxes and flowers, but so far I think I'm doing all right just moving the line slightly!

There are two directions from which to consider your text. Top-down looks at structural elements and considers how the sentences serve them, while bottom-up looks at the sentences as they flow along and tries to identify how they form larger patterns. Neither one can function entirely on its own. Creating a perfect line is an instance of bottom-up success, but for your story to be most successful, it's a good idea to consider what it's doing from the top-down direction as well. When both directions are working together to form a cohesive whole, that's a good recipe for a successful story.