This is a new part of my 30-Day Editing Challenge. Start at the beginning or find other days here.
When we’re writing the first draft of a story, the ideas that are blooming in our heads can feel like a branching tree. We might begin with one basic metaphorical thread, or one emotional storyline; but pretty soon that idea is branching off into other sub-categories and ideas. And before you know it, that idea is branching into more, and more, and more. Soon the simple, straightforward idea you had about a girl having a day out with her grandfather has become an unwieldy beast of ideas and plots. We could think about metaphor’s of the grandfather’s aging and mortality; or we could have scenes that illustrate the girl’s naivete and his worldly-wise experience; or maybe he’s a parent surrogate for her because she has lost her own parents. Maybe all of these things are true. But for an effective short story, I think we need to be focused, lean, and mean when it comes not only to plotting, but to our ideas as well.
The exercise today is to do some metaphorical weed-whacking. Take a good look through the story and ask yourself a few key questions:
What is the kernel of the story?
What scenes are not serving the kernel of the story?
What scene brings the kernel of the story to the forefront?
I often ask my students what they think the kernel of a story is; by that I mean I’m looking for the knot or problem that is deep down at the center of the story. Stories can be about many things, but there should always be one thing that feels like the story’s beating heart. Is this story really about the mother, or the father? Is it about their relationship, or is it about the child torn between them? Is it about drugs, or money, or power? Is it about belief and faith, or is it about the afterlife and the supernatural? We as readers need to feel that there’s something at the center, some problem that trumps all the others.
Once you think you’ve found what the kernel of the story is, do some weeding. Think about scenes that aren’t serving that kernel: are they really, truly, necessary? Put them on notice. They are officially guilty until proven innocent.
If you’re unsure how to find what is at the kernel, don’t be tempted just to pick what originally gave you the idea to write. Sometimes we write ourselves into whole new realms just by following our pens, and the original impetus for the story is now irrelevant. Instead, ask yourself what would fundamentally alter the story if you removed it. If we didn’t know the mother was going through a divorce, would it still be the same story? That’s not the kernel.