Friday, June 8, 2012

The Cutting Room Floor: Off with the Author's Ego

I remember my first "cutting room floor" experience. When I was writing my third or fourth short story, I was trying really hard to capture an original plot. This was rather ambitious considering I was seventeen and had no clue what I was doing. I was simply driven by a need, an impulse, a desire for expression.

My desire for originality motivated me to consult my high school English teacher. Despite an expectation for brilliant insight and guidance, she was genuinely surprised at my request for assistance. I learned being an English teacher does not an author make. Even though writing fiction wasn't her forte, she was totally willing to discuss my plot.

I didn't walk away with the secret to writing or to my story. However, by discussing my story aloud with an interested party, I innately understood something: one of my original details had to go. Without hesitation I removed it. It was so natural that I quickly forgot the former all-important motivation as the story took its own shape.

Later, in college, professors lectured about the "cutting room floor"--the need to let go of initial details or impetus once the story takes form. It's an eerie 'fact' that the inspirational element must be weeded out.** It was such a thrill to have my impulse defined as a tactical necessity. I had done something right all on my own!

Unfortunately, there aren't specific rules to decide what gets cut. There's no formula: A+B=craft to the infinite power. Mostly there are general suggestions for weighing merit: does it add value, is it necessary, are you hitting the reader over the head and pointing at your writing? These sound specific to me now, but I know they're not always.

In my opinion, the biggest hurdles for accepting the reality of the "cutting room floor" are understanding the value and detriment of your ego, and believing in your abilities.

  • Ego: writers require some ego because they must enjoy their own writing. If you think everything you write sucks, it's impossible to keep writing. However, if you are IN LOVE with your writing, you won't see the tedious nature or narcissistic preening of your own prose. It takes courage to let go of an initial impulse, a great piece of dialogue or description, and to know that more will come. 
  • Abilities: no matter how great that line of dialogue, that description of anger, that fabulous character, if it distracts, it must go. BUT believe that you have a bottomless fountain and more will come out. Maybe it won't be that perfect nuanced retort you just cut. That's okay because there's no such thing as the ONE SINGLE PERFECT name, phrase, description, action, denouement. Everything must work together as a whole unit. Fixating on one clever item stunts the story.

I performed this very task while writing this post. A tangent called to me like a siren because I liked my related points and how I articulated them. But they weren't actually about the "cutting room floor," so I cut them.

** Eerie 'fact' because "there is an exception to every rule." I haven't proven this but I'm sure other's have.

Listening to "Let Go" by Frou Frou on Pandora. Freakish how that works sometimes.