Pet Peeves. We all have them: toilet paper hung over the top and down the front of the roll rather than down the back, or maybe the other way ‘round; people lingering in doorways to say goodbye to each other when you’re trying to slide by; somebody sucking on a straw making the last irretrievable bit of drink gurgle at the bottom of the cup. They are those little things that disproportionately tump over our emotional apple-carts spilling our precious fruit everywhere.
As a writer, I’m here to tell you pet peeves crop up in the books we read, too. We’ve all heard them before. “Show, don’t tell!” “You’re wasting too many words on backstory!” “The main character (MC) starts right off in a heavy emotional scene before readers are given any motivation to give a hoot!”
Well, I recently discovered a new one, at least for me. Maybe you can relate, maybe not, but I call it Non-germane Content. A more catchy turn of phrase would be, So What! You know, stuff that’s in the story but doesn’t advance the plot or relate to the premise – the scenes that, if they were missing, wouldn’t affect the story in any way.
A lot of that has to do with market forces. We writers are constantly hen-pecked to kick off our stories with action otherwise readers will be bored and bail. Good, strong, tired-and-true advice. However, that action needs to be germane to the story. Even if it’s a C, D, or even E sub-plot running as background noise in the tale, it’s got to be pertinent in some way.
I love examples, so here’s one: I read a book about a year ago where, in chapter one, page one, paragraph one, sentence one, the MC was in a fight with hoodlums. Though intended to be the victim, MC turned the tables on the goons and comeuppance was dished out in hearty servings. It was fast, thrilling, and satisfying to see rough justice applied. Queue chapters two through to those magical words THE END. Thugs never resurface. Whatever they were fighting over, and it was never clearly stated, wasn’t an issue anymore. Upon finishing the book, I was left asking myself, “That chapter one stuff. So what?”
Another source of the “So Whats” is the truism that we, as authors, have something to say, even if it is as stunningly simple as wanting to spin a rip-roaring good yarn. If we didn’t why would we write? We do, I firmly believe, need to make sure that whatever it is we are trying to say is integral to the story we are telling.
Another example: More recently, I finished a book wherein it was revealed, exactly at the mid-point of the novel, that two characters were exploring a lesbian relationship. All fine, well, and good, as far as I’m concerned. But – isn’t there always a but – their relationship added zero to the story. It didn’t complicate the progress MC was making toward Act Three, Resolution. It wasn’t a hindrance. It wasn’t a source of support or inspiration. The relationship offered up no new ideas or insights, no plot twists or Ah-Hah! moments of understanding either through exposition via action or dialogue. When done with the book I found myself asking why that relationship, which did nothing for the story’s progress, was so important for me to know about? So What!
And before I get burned at the stake, I feel the exact same way about pointless heterosexual relationships in my reading, too. If the MC is married and the spouse doesn’t contribute to the story in some way, drop them off at work and get on with it, don’t waste precious word-count on telling me about their relationship because, So What?
There are lots of similar examples out there. What is the point, I sometimes wonder, of this truly graphic sex scene? How does knowing my MC’s favorite Karma Sutra position give me more information on what the MC needs in order to slay the dragon? And why, oh why is such an explicit and detailed scene in a Middle Grade or Young Adult book I ALWAYS ask, but that’s a completely different question.
So there you have it, my most recent literary pet peeve. Yes, we have expectations that come down from on high, i.e. publishers, editors, and agents. Yes, we have messages we are trying to deliver. Yes, we want to make our characters vivid, real, and exciting. But we also need to ensure, while hitting all these requirements, that we make sure our details are somehow germane to the larger vision – a rip-roaring good yarn