If I ever sit down and write my own personal ‘Rules for Writers’ (which will be kind of like Rules for the Overlord, but with fewer minions) one of the rules I want to be sure to put in there is what I like to call ‘The Rule of Neat’.
The Rule of Neat is simple: Why is [detail, plot point, device] in my story? If the answer is ‘because it’s neat’ then please go back and either remove or revise that element. Something very much like this rule (although not precisely the same) is embodied in the idea of ‘kill your darlings’ — it’s very often the passages of which we are the most fond that are the most cliched and unnecessary. In fact, the first novel I ever finished (and the one I will one day finish rewriting, I promise) was so guilty of this that it’s a primary reason I tore the damn thing apart and put a lot more work into world-building for the second go. There was so many points in that story that I couldn’t justify other than because I thought they were neat scenes that the whole mess failed on virtually every level.
If you’ve ever read the rough drafts for Star Wars, Episode IV (they are kind of like reading a train wreck honestly — terrible and fascinating and you can’t quite look away) there are some fantastic examples of this. Obi Wan Kenobi (or someone in the same role) has a scene where Kenobi punctuates his argument by revealing to the young hero that one of his arms is a cybernetic limb because he lost his real arm in ‘the war.’ This scene is really just excreble, and it’s in the first five versions of the script. The sixth version made it to film, and it’s only in the sixth version that Lucas cuts this dog. Lucas never quite lost his fascination with having people lose hands and limbs, but it was much more powerful when saved for Luke in Empire Strikes Back. It means something when it happens to Luke. Having Obi Wan reveal it as a done deal has no power whatsoever.
There’s nothing wrong with an important scene also being ‘neat.’ Steven Brust has a terrific footnote in one of his novels where he explains that all writing is ultimately the writer saying ‘let me show you something cool’ and that a reader’s enjoyment of said writing will ultimately hinge on whether or not they agree and to what extent. People absolutely should share the stuff they think is neat — but my personal feeling is that if that’s the only reason it’s there, the warning bells should go off. ‘Neat’ can also be incredibly self-indulgent and nonsensical. ‘Neat’ can also include memes and inside jokes that are wonderfully insightful to a small group of people but will seem contrived, odd or just downright idiotic to most readers. ‘Neat’ has the ability to stare down reason, logic and common sense and say ‘I don’t care if it makes no sense for Neo to be able to control machines outside of the Matrix. It’s neat!’
The Rule of Neat segues nicely into Forgetting to Ask A Five-Year-Old, since very often someone who picks at the logical elements of a story will quickly zero in on the stuff that’s only there because the author thinks X is really damn cool.
And of course, the Rule of Neat won’t save you from having such a justification but simply being completely wrong. (See: George Lucas. See: Jar-Jar Binks. See:Virtually Everything George Lucas Has Done In The Last Two Decades.)