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Most of the first pieces of writing I sold were poems. Most were under forty lines. In these short poems, I might use an organizing metaphor, but I never had to develop the metaphor beyond that. For years, I wrote fiction the same way, introducing details for color and ignoring them after I moved on from the passage where they appears. However, now that I am trying to write fiction on a daily basis, I realize that approach is inadequate. Instead, I have started practicing parsimony, hoarding details to return to them later on.

What I call parsimony is a restatement of Anton Chekhov’s old adage that, if a gun is hanging on a wall in the first scene of a play, it needs to be fired later on. It is a way of trimming the unnecessary from my writing, and of providing a structural unity.

Recently, though, I have started to appreciate how much parsimony can help with the struggle to plot. So far as I had ever thought of the matter, I imagined that writers carefully conceived of the details that they would need later on, and planted them early in a work. As they edited, perhaps they might go back and add details that a new plot twist required.

I’ve done my share of that, especially after receiving criticism in the writing circle I joined a few months ago. Yet far more often, that’s not how I work at all. More often, I still add details as they occur to me, just as I do in poetry. Then, when I take out the sketchy outline I made as I started writing, I find myself solving plot problems by referring back to the details I mentioned earlier.

For example, in one chapter of my attempt at a fantasy novel, I threw in the bit of color that the culture identifies streets not by signs, but by statues appropriate to the name of the street. In the next chapter, I needed to give two characters a place where they could watch events from the back of a crowd. Remembering those statues, I knew at once where they could stand. The statues, I realized, were a much convincing vantage point than a convenient window ledge or roof top, because the characters would not want to trap themselves if found by their pursuers.

Similarly, I needed someone with whom the protagonists could take refuge. I could have invented a new character, and inserted a few mentions of the character earlier in the narrative. Instead, I dusted off a character who had played a minor point, and the protagonists took shelter with her. I didn’t even have to go back and add anything, because she shared a grievance with the protagonists that would make her willing to help her.

In each of these instances, I avoided the complication of another character and increased the structural unity as well. Moreover, by looking back at what I had already written, I solved plot problems that I otherwise would have agonized over.

I still add bits of color as they occur to me, of course. Now, however, I make a note of them as I do, so that I can recall them later. The parsimony is not just in the structure, but in the economy of effort as well.

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