Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Filler and Hobbyhorses

When I was taking high school physics, my teacher was big on lab reports. Every week we were assigned a lab report which was to range between seven to ten pages. We would turn it in at the beginning of lab, and the instructor would go into his 'office', really a lab storage area, while we worked on the experiment for that week. At the end of lab he would emerge with all the reports graded. We marveled at his ability to get through them so quickly, and wondered about the clinking noises we could hear coming from his secret den.

It didn't take long for one of the best and brightest to come up with an hypothesis. Grades were given by weight, or more technically by mass, since that is what the triple beam balance truly records. (I remember that much.) But how to test the hypothesis?

Filler. One student used the middle pages of his lab report to expound on his summer trip to Disney World. We watched as the teacher carried the reports back, and could barely pay attention while he was in the back room, the occasional clanks of the balance (we supposed) and the squeak of his chair the only sound. When he emerged, we filed up to get our reports, and our hypothesis seemed proved. He got an A. Grades were determined by mass. QED.

A juvenile story, yes. But something I've seen a little bit in some published works of fiction.

Now, I'm not saying that authors are trying to boost their word count by inserting irrelevant material. At least I hope not. But I do believe it is easy for writers to allow their interests and hobbies to override their better judgment causing them to include pages and pages of material that is not pertinent to the story they are telling. Now, if the reader shares this love or interest, he might not even notice. But if he doesn't? He chokes on it as so much sawdust meant to stretch the bread. To him it is filler.

So, what is the latest? I was reading a mystery set in Victorian England, and one of the main characters visited an old war veteran, who just happened to relate to her the entire battle of Trafalgar, and the burial of Admiral Nelson. (Now if I have gotten that wrong, it doesn't matter. I hate history, and it is not pertinent to the story.) But the writer loves history. And people who love history would love that it is incorporated in the novel. Me? I skimmed through and picked up later at the mystery, which was a good one.

But this is not the only instance. I was once given the history of all the Civil War naval battles fought on the Great Lakes while a family yachted across while on vacation. I have also been treated to tour-guide depictions of London, Paris, and San Francisco. If I were passionate about any of those places, I wouldn't have minded. But since I'm not, the excursion was tiring. Now I'm not saying the stories should not have been set there. Interesting characters doing interesting things in interesting places--that makes for good reading. But when the plot is left behind to indulge the writer's interest, and he/she carries me kicking and screaming along with them? That is something I have a problem with.

It's not only places. It can be things and ideas as well. One book I was reading involved a main character taking a plane trip. Just because a character gets on a plane, doesn't mean she has to reflect on the physics of flight--which was obviously of some interest to the writer, but not to me. I'd already taken physics.

So, what can I learn from this? And how can I make sure that similar filler doesn't creep into my dreadful novel? Make sure every inclusion is relevant in some way. If the characters visit any place, it should be part of the plot. If not, make something happen there, or cut it. If scientific concepts are included, it should be part of the plot. If past history is included, it should be integral to the plot.

Speaking of history, back to high school physics... The next week another fellow student, frustrated that his reports were not even being read, inserted one line into his otherwise well-written report. "If he reads this, I'll buy him a beer."

When he retrieved his paper at the end of the class period, scrawled on top next to the "A" was the comment, "Make it a Michelob."

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