There's something that we live by when we read a novel or watch a movie, but tend to completely forget when we write one: readers (and viewers) assume that everything the writer tells them is there on a strictly need-to-know basis. Our assumption is that if we don't need to know it, the writer won't waste precious time telling us about it. We trust that each piece of information, each event, each observation, matters-right down to how the protagonist's hometown is described, the amount of hair gel he uses, and how scuffed his shoes are-and that it will have a story consequence, give us insight we need in order to grasp what's happening, or both. If it turns out that it doesn't matter, we do one of two things: (1) we lose interest, or (2) we try to invent a consequence or meaning. This only postpones our loss of interest, which is then mingled with annoyance, because we've invested energy trying to figure out what the writer was getting at, when the truth is, she wasn't getting at anything. So as a writer how do you avoid falling into this particular trap? By using something I like to call the "And so?" Test. It works like this: ask of each insight, each piece of information, each scene, "And so?" Meaning, what is the point? Why does the reader need to know this? If the answer is she doesn't, give it the boot. You'll both tighten your story logic, and banish those pesky darlings that otherwise send your reader off into a decidedly different story than the one you're actually telling - that, or to the refrigerator for a snack.
Lisa Cron is the author of the forthcoming Wired for Story: The Writer's Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence. She's a story consultant, an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, and there's nothing she loves more than talking story. She can be found at wiredforstory.com.