I’ve often heard the act of writing described as a series of choices. If you think about it, that act of selecting what to put in and what to leave out is a large part of the process. There’s a great scene in Adaptation where Nicholas Cage as Charlie Kaufman keeps backpedaling in his story to find the beginning. Eventually, he resorts to, “Okay, we open at the beginning of time…”
Richard Curtis recently said that when he was writing Love Actually, he was so tired of the standard romantic comedy conventions that he decided to tell a bunch of love stories using only the key scenes from their individual movies. On the opposite end of that equation, I’m currently rereading IT by Stephen King, a book in which no editorial process of any kind seems to have come into play.
IT has seven protagonists all of whose adventures are described in great detail both in 1958 when they are children and in the 1980s when they are adults. That is a lot of story, I can tell you. I would never attempt something like that – I just don’t have the chops or the patience – but I’ve seen King do it before so I wasn’t worried going in. When he started recounting long diary entries regarding the very many barbaric incidents that have plagued the town of Derry I started to get worried. And then, when he began doling out the back stories of random incidental characters, I almost jumped ship.
I decided not to, however, because even though the story has become simultaneously cruel and tedious, I now see it as a sort of grand experiment in following every detail down every rat hole for every character no matter how minor. And once I finally make it to the disappointing end of the book, I plan to reread Matheson’s I Am Legend and Levin’s This Perfect Day and maybe even Rosemary’s Baby. If you want an example of how to cut until you hit bone and then carve your initials in that bone, Matheson and Levin are your go-to boys.
I read This Perfect Day in 1985, stumbling upon it in the base library while stationed overseas. Like everyone else, I read the entire thing in one sitting. Levin is, to quote some critic whose name I can’t recall, ruthlessly efficient. He must have really taken Strunk & White’s Prime Directive of “Omit Needless Words” to his very heart. The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, Rosemary’s Baby: There are no extra words in these books. Their story engines are jet turbines on rocket fuel.
Now let me take a step back and circle around to where I started because there is something that Matheson and Levin don’t do as well as King: Characterization. You don’t care very much because the story is moving you along too fast for you to notice, but it’s true that most of those “needless” words Matheson and Irvin omitted would have gone to characterization.
In that light, IT becomes more of a cautionary tale of excess than a complete disaster. I don’t reread Rosemary or I Am Legend every year like I do Salem’s Lot and The Black House.
It all comes back to balance. As with most things in life, excess leads to ruination. While my favorite feedback from readers is still, “I couldn’t put it down…” or “I was just going to read a chapter but I ended up finishing it one sitting…” I am convinced that well developed characters are just as important to that juggernaut of a story as plot is.
I just don’t need to know that the paper boy, a character who will never reappear in the story, is going to work his way into college, graduate with a B.S. in Computer Science only to be thrill killed in the alley behind a leather bar when he turns twenty – unless that information has some direct bearing on the tale being told.
EDIT: I don’t normally do this, but I feel the need to append some thoughts to this post.
1) I should have pointed out that King is comfortable working from either end of the spectrum. The Dead Zone is a thin, fast moving, perfectly plotted story WITH great characterization.
2) The problem with IT isn’t its girth. The Stand is another thick book with lots and lots of characters but its width fits the size of the story it’s trying to tell. IT is sort of like taking a story the size of The Dead Zone and inflating up to the size of The Stand with mostly superfluous details.
3) When a book is well written, the reader doesn’t notice the time it takes to read it or the number of pages. When a book nears perfection, the reader notices the number of pages only toward the end and only with the dread of knowing the story will soon be over. King’s 11-22-63 and Bag of Bones had that effect on me while Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 seemed to dawdle along without any reason and then just stopped. While reading that book, I was constantly checking how far I had left to go before I would be free of it.