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I'm a fan of minimalism so I tend to write stories which are as simple as possible. And sometimes I add elements that don't have a concrete explanation. I leave that to interpretation of the reader.

Very often, I find myself wondering whether an element or scene is needed. Here are some of the things I do:

  • I ask myself: "Would the story change dramatically if I removed this element/scene?
  • I remove the elements/scenes that I find boring to write
  • I remove the elements/scenes that makes me become confused about the plot

How else can I identify elements that are unnecessarily complex or just irrelevant?

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Finding a balance between color and clutter is difficult. However, asking for tips (as this question did) isn't really answerable - there's no way of writing a canonical answer - so I've edited to make the question more focused. Please revert my edit or further change it if needed, but I hope this helps. –  Neil Fein Aug 27 '13 at 1:37
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The single most useful piece of writing advice I've ever encountered came from the author Haruki Murakami, who said something to the effect of "Spend as much time as possible on the things the reader has never seen before, and minimize everything else." –  Aerovistae Aug 27 '13 at 3:16
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@Aerovistae Thanks! Murakami is my favorite author. Where did he say that? From the book "What I Talk About When I Talk about Running?" –  Alexandro Chen Aug 27 '13 at 3:28
    
I don't know... I can't remember where I saw it. I tried looking for it and couldn't find it. Give me time, I will find it eventually. –  Aerovistae Aug 27 '13 at 4:34
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2 Answers 2

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It is not necessarily the plot that's important. I wouldn't even say it's those parts that you view as "boring" (boring could mean it's still important, but it needs to be rewritten).

James N. Frey's How to Write a Damn Good Novel (Chapter 3), recommends that you use a story's premise to be selective in determining what goes in and out of your story. The premise of a story is essentially "a statement of what happens to the characters as a result of the core conflict of the story." For example, the premise of The Godfather can be expressed as "family loyalty leads to a life of crime", while The Old Man and the Sea has the premise of "courage leads to redemption".

You likely will not know the premise from the start, but it should become apparent from your characters, how they will likely interact with one another and the conflicts that arise, which ultimately reaches a conclusion. As Frey puts it, "There is no formula for finding a premise. You simply start with a character or a situation, give the protaginist a dilemma, and then meditate on how it might go."

However, once you do know your premise, you can be ruthless in removing all that has no bearing on proving the premise, which ties in nicely with the first item in your list. Like a sculptor's knife that strips away excess clay to reveal the statue, the premise whittles away the cruft from your story. As Aristotle puts it, "For that which makes no perceptible difference by its presence or absence is no real part of the whole."

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I engage in the minimalist style to some degree, so I can understand why removing the 'noise' from your story is important: it causes distraction which undermines the impact of your story.

I cannot give you a foolproof system but the one that works for me is that I make sure each detail that I am putting in my story has a purpose/reason behind it. It must contribute to the storyline.

For example, if I describe in the first few paragraphs that a character is concerned about something, I then make sure that readers become aware of exactly what is bothering him or her. If you write several paragraphs that are unrelated to the character's concerns, that is clutter!

I am not saying that you cannot write several paragraphs as background to your character's concerns. The key point here is that every paragraph you write must be either directly or indirectly connected to the character's concerns.

It often comes down to good editing techniques. You know your plot and you want your readers to imagine it like you do. So edit your stories to fit the picture you have in your mind. If a detail does not make sense to you (i.e. does not contribute to the storyline), then it will not make sense to your readers.

My golden rule is that if it is a standalone description, then it is most likely clutter.

Example:

  • He was wearing a red jumper and standing at the back of the room (standalone - ask yourself: so what?).
  • He was wearing a red jumper that helped him blend into the dark setting of the room (description is not stand alone)
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is there any place I can read your stories? I would like to check them out. –  Alexandro Chen Aug 28 '13 at 8:06
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