Friday, May 11, 2018

The Price of Tea in China

Certified International Indigold 36 Oz. Teapot In Blue
When I was a child and people began veering off from the main point of a story they were telling, someone would bring them up short with the phrase "That has nothing to do with the price of tea in China."

It took me a number of years to figure that one out. And I might add that people don't tell stories much anymore. Great storytellers were once prized. They were good for an evenings entertainment. Good storytellers always built to a suspenseful climax. My father and my Uncle Clarence were two of the best. Cousin Frankie came close. In fact, on some occasions, he could top anyone. 

A number of these stories have stayed with me forever. When Frankie became a lawyer he defended a man who insisted his murdered victim was going to turn himself into a snake and bite him. (True, this one) Frankie went to the reservation and asked a medicine man if by any chance his client honestly believed that. "No," the shaman replied solemnly. "Everyone knows it take three days to turn yourself into a snake." 

My father's recitation of the "Biggest Liar in Kincaid" was one of the funniest stories I've ever heard and like most, it was grounded in truth. Sort of. These stories relied on a keen and benign awareness of human nature. 

But woe to the would be storyteller who lacked timing and pacing. Woe be to the person slapped down with "that has nothing to do with the price of tea in China."

The phrase means a segment is absolutely pointless. Not only does it not add to the story, it's aggravating as hell. 

Exhausting passages that have nothing to do with the prince of tea in China are one of the most common mistakes made by beginning novelists. They are usually inserted to beef up an author's credentials, but have more to do with the author's ego, not the story. It's so tempting to show off one's mastery of the history of a period. Especially when the story is shaped by setting and the environment of the everyday world. 

All historical details should be integrated in such a way that they advance the plot. For my historical novel, Come Spring, I read a whole book about fitting horse collars properly. I really, really wanted to show off my knowledge of horse collars, but knew it would bore readers stiff. I ended up with a scene where my hero, Daniel, padded the horse collar with a piece of precious calico, infuriating his wife, Aura Lee, who had planned to use the fabric in a quilt. 

There's extra tension when descriptive details are so crucial to a scene that the elements stick with readers forever. The account of the Count of Monte Cristo's stay in the dungeon would not be the same without the slimy walls, the moldy food, the crushing deprivation. 

Integration into plot is the best way, but if a writer must use narrative passages, I like Jack Bickham's book, Scene and Structure. Bickham offers an excellent explanation about sequels to a scene and how they set the stage for action to come. Of particular interest is the emphasis on a character's reaction--often brooding--to tension generated and his decision to do something.

Sequels are also a very convenient place to slip in critical observations while the mumbling hero is talking to himself: passing beggars, stumbling over the sick, etc. It's a chance to slip in political opinions. All sorts of stuff. 

I could add many examples of passages that have nothing to do with the price of tea in China, but I'm sure every reader could point to books where they abandoned them half way through for this every reason


Kalai chellam said...

Thanks for the informative article. This is one of the best resources I have found in quite some time. Nicely written and great info. I really cannot thank you enough for sharing.

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Sybil Johnson said...

Jack Bickham's book is a great resource. Great post.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Thanks Kalai, This is one of the longest-running creative writing blogs thanks to our super blogmaster Rick Blechta. He's very faithful to the task.


Charlotte Hinger said...

Sybil, glad you agree. I love that book.