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Focus on what’s important in a story

Posted in Characters, and Just for Writers


You often hear people refer to the fabric of a story or to weaving a plot, but these textile metaphors are maladroit. Stories aren’t flat 2-dimensional objects.

In a piece of cloth, all threads are functional, all must be anchored at each end, and all are necessary for a whole cloth. Stories, on the other hand, are about a person (one or more, human or alien or any sort of thinking/feeling being) who does something. Everything else in the story is background context to help tell the main story.

The story implicit in the (photoshopped) illustration is the fox’s story. Certainly, each hound might have a story to tell, but if you tried to tell them all at once, there’d be no story at all. So every hound’s story must be subordinate to the fox’s to make a proper tale.

A better metaphor is in the domain of optics, in the form of lens focus.

I’ve been reminded of this lately since I’m partway through the process of replacing the lenses in my eyes (cataracts) with shiny new pre-corrected plastic inserts.

Like my older brother I’ve had poor vision since early childhood, though it wasn’t caught and corrected until I was 10. I’ve never been able to see the “big E” with my native vision. Fortunately I was allowed hard contact lenses at 13 back in the 1960s, a time when kids my age did not normally get contacts (on the grounds of carelessness in handling), and that corrected my vision to 20/20 and halted almost all the continuing degradation of my sight. I’ve been a happy hard lens wearer for 47 years, longer than many of my eye doctors have been alive.

Opticians have been warning me about cataracts for the last couple of years and as a photographer I’ve been noticing that peering through the camera viewfinder has become more and more difficult. This was the year that I decided to do something about it.

For those of you who haven’t gotten to this point yet, let me explain that they work on one eye at a time and let it heal before doing the other. And if you’ve been a long-time wearer of hard contacts, you have to remove them for weeks before the eye is operated upon so that it can recover to its normal shape as much as possible. That’s because modern replacement lenses are pre-corrected and (if you’re lucky) they can give you 20/20 vision with the new lens, though you may still need reading glasses.

So, for the last four weeks I’ve had a contact in my right eye as usual and nothing in my left eye, to prepare it for its operation. The brain adapts pretty well to the gross inequality of the visual input, largely ignoring the eye that doesn’t usefully contribute. Since my uncorrected eye was still fine for close vision, the brain would hop from naked left eye for close up (inches) detail to the corrected right eye (with or without reading glasses) for everything else. It was disconcerting, but surprisingly functional.

As an outdoor sporting (animals) photographer, I’m used to carrying two cameras — a relatively close-up one for nearby action, and a long distance telephoto monster for distant shots. That’s how my eyes have been for a month.

A few days ago, I had the first operation, for the left eye. While the whole concept of an eye operation is stomach clenching, I found there was no pain, trivial brief discomfort, and wonderful results. The weeks of managing without a contact in that eye had let the eye change shape a little bit, and I’ve ended up with 20/20 vision in that eye, for the first time ever. I spent one day basking in the combination of new left eye and corrected right eye (which made the effect of the cataract in the right eye rather more obvious) before taking the contact out of the right eye to go through the eye shape recovery process there. In a couple more weeks, that eye will be done, too.

Meanwhile, my brain which had adapted to “left=bad, right=good” has now flipflopped to “left=good, right=bad”. Depending on which input is more useful, the focus shifts from eye to eye according to need.

And that’s what a story needs to do. The focus of the story needs to be on the characters to whom the story belongs, and on their actions which belong to that story, that one story. An ensemble cast may have several stories, but they must all be in service to one primary story within any one work. The fox, not all the hounds. Give the hounds their own stories somewhere else.

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