19 July 2010

Serve The Story

by Clark Brooks

Clark delivers this advice to writers with the speed, wit, and candor of the stand up comic and demonstrates the impact of a defined writer's voice.

The best advice I ever got for writing was actually given to me as an actor and that is to SERVE THE STORY. Don't waste your readers time with clever phrasing and flowery speech that doesn't move things along. That's not clever and flowery. It's self-indulgent and annoying. It's like a crop duster doing aerial loops. It might be fun for you but you're getting pesticide all over the place.

Okay, maybe not, but you get the idea. Respect your readers; you come to them with a story to tell and they've given you their attention so you can tell it. So dust the damn crops already.

Here's an example. It's from acting, but I think you'll see the relevance. I was in a community theatre production of a Neil Simon play with a guy who decided he was going to incorporate some business into a scene, a shout-out to his favorite college football team. If you're trying to think of a Neil Simon play that has anything at all to do with college football, don't bother because there aren't any. "Why would you do that?", I asked. "Because I have some buddies coming tonight and they'll get a kick out of it", he said. "That is a terrible idea. There's going to be a couple hundred people here and you're going to take them all out of the story so you can get a laugh out of a couple of your drinking buddies?" "Well, nobody said anything when Tanya added that bit where she has trouble sitting in a chair." "That's because it's funny. Her character is an idiot. Struggling to figure out how to sit in a chair illustrates that point. And everybody gets that. On stage in front of an audience is exactly not the place to share inside jokes with your pals." "Well, I'm doing it anyway." I knew he would. And he did. And if you've ever wondered what it sounds like when 200 people who are laughing at a Neil Simon romantic comedy are suddenly force-fed a line from the University of Michigan fight song for no reason whatsoever, it sounds a lot like the kind of complete silence you imagine exists in deep space. Cold, empty and dead. Nobody laughed, including the boob's buddies, who might have left early...if they even showed up.

So SERVE THE STORY. Get rid of anything that doesn't fit that credo. It doesn't mean you have to boil everything down to the point that it reads like a police report of a minor traffic accident. Your audience wants to be entertained. By all means, take time in describing environments in great detail. Give your characters quirky habits. Even make one of them a University of Michigan fan...as long as you SERVE THE STORY. If you come up with something that doesn't, even if you think it's the greatest thing you or anybody else has ever written, get rid of it. This will require you to be honest about your work, but that's a discipline you'll want to develop anyway and this is as good a way as any to do so.


Visit Clark Brooks at the Ridiculously Inconsistent Trickle of Consciousness


  1. I remember taking an 8-week novel-writing workshop where the facilitator hammered something similar at us, over and over. The school of thought she and other instructors followed was known as "freefall," where you just kept plunging forward even if you hadn't carefully outlined everything out in advance. (Get it all written, edit later.)

    But the one thing she hammered into us over and over was that whatever we put in as we went along had to push the plot forward. If it didn't do that in some way, then it shouldn't be in there, interesting or even well-written though it might be. That sounds pretty much like what you're saying here.

    It made a big difference for me, and how I write.

  2. I agree! :) That's good advice.

  3. I need to stay on topic more. I am tangent queen of writing, a title I would gladly pass on to someone else.

  4. I love this advice because I tend to lose the story focus when I go into descriptions. Descriptions that are not necessary, at least most of the time.

  5. 19th century writers had it easy. If you said nothing for forty pages, it was considered genius.

    (Don't have a heart attack, true litterateurs, I'm only joking.)

  6. *graps arm* *slumps to the knees*

    Shouts at John in a strained voice, "You're killing my readers."

    *dies**comes back as ghost*

    "How could you?"

  7. aka 'kill your darlings'! There are many reasons why we shoehorn things in that don't fit, but we shouldn't - because as you point out, they smack us out of the flow. Good post.

  8. Yeah, serve the story is the ONLY rule authors/artists should even considering adhering to. It need to form the basics of your work, and then you may expand upon it from that point on.