Sometimes during the process of writing and revising we speak of the “bones” of a story. Typically, this is because the other supportive elements of the work aren’t doing those bones justice.
“I like the bones of this story,” we might say, the remaining, “but…” implicit, if unspoken.
So let’s stay with the metaphor another moment to find a way to make the story stronger.
Bones are the structure holding a body (or a story) together, the parts to which everything else pins, but they don’t move on their own. For that we have our muscles and connective tissues. Nothing happens—nothing dances—without them. Now stop to think about how our muscles work, remembering that in our story-as-body metaphor these are the elements needing improvement when we hear a story has “good bones”.
Muscles attach in two (or more) places. The upper arm and lower arm. Upper leg and lower leg. Once side of a joint and the other side. They wouldn’t do very much animating of the skeleton if they only had one point of connection.
That lays out a lot of groundwork for a point which you might, by now, already see. Storytelling is more than just telling the story. Sometimes it’s what you leave out. That’s part of the work we call “craft.” We have to make tough choices about what details we leave in versus those we leave out. That means that the choices we make about images, about details, about plotting, about character… all of it… they all need to help tell the story in multiple ways. A particular detail about a character might not only tell us something about that character. It might also set up a conflict with another character. It might move the plot in a particular direction. It might heighten the tension in a climactic moment. It might foreshadow. It might reinforce a theme.
All of those functions are places where that one detail interacts and impacts the story. These are the places where we might say that muscle attaches to our story-bones. The stronger that attachment, the more the story can articulate. The more it can dance.
Obviously there are other concerns to keep in mind. Details are meaningful based on the weight we give them, but they are believable for the balance we strike. Too many parts of the story affected by one detail/choice and the whole thing can start to feel contrived. But thinking of our various elements in this way, seeing how they interact with the whole of the story, can help us make intelligent choices when it comes to editing a story into shape.
Maybe that digression into a neighborhood block-party is accurate to the events as they happened (for a story inspired by true events), or accurate to the way you see that part of the story progressing (for a work of complete fiction), but that doesn’t mean it works for the story. It might make a secondary character seem more important than they are, or interrupt the story’s flow, or introduce a subplot you never planned on. Worse, the passage can work against one of your themes, or leave the reader baffled and waiting for it to matter to the more central story you’re trying to tell.
The more we are conscious of this, the more we make our decisions based on the necessity of each detail, the tighter our story will become and the closer we will come to a place where we can say we are telling the right story about the right character.
The story might have good bones, but without a certain fitness to what else we include that potential will never be realized.