Sherlock Holmes: Incidental vs. Vital

Looking over my Sherlock Holmes mug this week, I came upon a phrase that’s relevant to my rewriting of Oh the Places You’ll Go!: “It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which are vital.” (I don’t know which story it’s from, sorry).

As a “pantser” my initial draft of any story is usually far off the final version. When I revise the first drafts into something usable that requires figuring out which arethe vital elements I want to keep and which are incidental. In One Hand Washes the Other I started with a teenage protagonist, then aged him about 15 years. In Peace With Honor I flipped from Vietnamese male and American female protagonists to the other way around. In both cases I knew the basic plot concept was sound, but my initial concept of the protagonist wasn’t vital.

With Oh the Places You’ll Go! — which involves people who can use old maps to travel to the past — I want to keep the protagonists pretty much as they are and restructure the plot around them. My core cast are best friends Charlotte and Michelle and their respective kids, Nora and Kurt. Both kids, as sometimes happens, think the other’s mom is so much cooler, why couldn’t she be my mom instead? By the end of the story, kids and parents have managed to more or less bridge the generation gap.

While one of my writing group loved the story as it was, most felt it needed a lot more, both in exploring the setting and adding some tension. Much as I’d like to agree with the dissenter, I think they were right: the conflict is so low-key it almost fades into the paper. It needs more. But I also think the family dynamic and some elements of the plot — Kurt and Charlotte in the past, Michelle and Nora in the present — are essential, so I have to find some way to keep them.

For this draft, I tried adding some action involving a McGuffin everyone is after, but that didn’t work — it’s definitely not an action story. So I’m looking at it as a character story, primarily. That fits with my original concept but it requires more of a character arc for my quartet. I haven’t figured out what that is yet, but I suspect it may be vital.

Up to this point I’ve set the “present” of the story as now, but I think that’s incidental. There’s a plot element I consider vital, involving a map from the future, but my writing group said it wasn’t that interesting a vision of the future. If, say, the present of the story is 1972, I could use a map from 2020 or 2025 (the thought of someone traveling through time and arriving in the Trump presidency is so depressing it makes me favor the latter). It’ll be an amazing future to my characters (Montenegro is a country again, Rhodesia is now Zimbabwe, no U.S.S.R. and East and West Germany one country) and it’ll be a lot easier for me.

We’ll see if any of this helps with the actual writing, but I’m optimistic.

#SFWApro. Cup design by Philosophers Guild, all rights to image remain with current holder.


Filed under Sherlock Holmes, Story Problems, Writing

2 responses to “Sherlock Holmes: Incidental vs. Vital

  1. Pingback: Characters whom you may never meet | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Little baby steps feel better than crawling | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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