Economy And Chicken
Whenever I’m trying to get the first third of a story into shape, I think of how my mother-in-law eats chicken. Having been raised poor, she claims she was taught the proper way to eat without waste, which in the case of the chicken involves devouring the bird right down to the marrow. There is absolutely no room for waste when you’re both starting the engine or your story and dolling out exposition. To this end, story elements should serve two or even three purposes. I saw a perfect example of this recently in The Karate Kid. Daniel, our hero, has just moved with his single mom to Southern California from his native Queens. He is unhappy with the move; his mother is constantly reassuring him that everything will be better. When they arrive at their new apartment, Daniel wants to get a dish of water for a dog he saw by the pool (the delivery of which leads to a plot point). When he turns on the faucet, waters shoots from the handle (reinforcing that the place is s dump, that the move was a bad idea). “Don’t worry,” reassures Daniel’s mom, “there’s a handy man in the complex who can fix it.” The handy man turns out to be Mr. Miyagi, Daniel’s soon-to-be karate teacher.
The storyteller in me nearly applauded the economy, as well as the sleight-of-hand. Not only did this one small incident involve two plot points (he turned on the faucet because of one plot point; it being broken introduced another), but by emphasizing the conflict between Daniel and his mother at the moment it occurs, the writer did not tip his hand that the faucet was really broken to bring Mr. Miyagi into the apartment. Bravo.
Writing is not about tricks and gimmicks. But in my experience, rewriting is often about making the most of what I already have. That is, if I realize that some plot element needs to be introduced around page 20 instead of page 120, I always look first to what is there on page 20. It is often the case, by some magic of narrative intuition, that a paragraph designed to create ambience can now be used to introduce a love interest as well. Sometimes it seems as if that was the paragraph’s purpose all along.