‘Just Because’ in Fiction

There’s a piece of writing advice that I particularly love, despite firmly believing that all writing rules are just guidelines made to be broken in interesting ways. It is this: Every scene or element in the story must do at least two things to further the story, or it gets cut. It’s sort of the inverse of Kill Your Darlings. Kill Your Darlings says to get rid of story things because you love them too much. The Double Duty Rule says to get rid of things if they’re only there because you love them too much.

On the other hand, I am also a huge fan of the idea that writing should be fun. If you’re creating any narrative media, it’s very obvious when someone’s enjoying the process and when they’re doing it because they ‘have’ to (or what will sell – though that’s not just a can, that’s a whole barrel full of worms that I’ll get into later). The example where this is probably easiest to tell is in acting. You’ve probably seen movies with good scripts and good premises flop because the actors weren’t feeling their roles, or weren’t quite selling the performances. But you’ve probably also seen movies that were not only enjoyable, but glorious and popular despite bad lines and terrible special effects because the actors threw themselves into their roles with glee and abandon. I think there should be room in every story for the things the author just plain enjoyed putting in there.

So, what are the reasons to keep a “purely fun” scene in a story? Note: I’m not talking about audience engagement here. All scenes should be engaging, but engaging doesn’t always mean fun to read, and audience engagement doesn’t equate to author’s darling. We’re talking here only about scenes that are in the story because the author had so much fun writing them and smiles every time they reread those sections.

There are a few different levels of reasons to keep scenes or elements: The first level is the bleedingly obvious. ‘Furthers the plot’, and ‘provides relevant information to the reader’ are the main ones here. But that’s very narrow – not everything has to be directly related to the main conflict in order to be relevant to the story. So then there’s ‘develops characters’, ‘creates tension’ and ‘develops themes’.

Does that mean a scene has to be Meaningful to be included? Well, no. Because there’s also mechanical reasons. Pacing and level of emotional tension are also important, and a scene that was fun to write can be perfect for making the narrative flow the way you want it to. A fun, light-hearted scene can be a nice breather between big, intense plot moments. An emotionally intense scene that doesn’t further or resolve tension can be a great way of dragging out and building up emotional tension to give the actual resolution more impact.

Elements follow similar rules: They can further the plot (like the main character, or the antagonist), they can develop characters (like a foil character, or a subplot that brings something to the main character’s attention that they hadn’t realised before), they can develop  themes (a quirk of politics in the setting that makes the story explore the implications of a particular view), or they can adjust the pacing and tension (a subplot that prevents two revelations from being too close to each other).

There will always be scenes and elements that don’t belong in a story, even if you really, really love them. It’s always a shame, and it can be hard to let go of them. But consider that the scene may be perfect if you just moved it to another spot in the story, or if you added in another character. That piece of worldbuilding might fit in great if you gave the explanation dialogue to a shop owner instead of the city Mayor. There are so many things a scene can do in a story, sometimes all it requires is a little creativity to make things work right.

But if it turns out that it is a Darling after all, well, a good cup of tea fixes most ills.

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