Reading John Staley’s Death and the Language of Happiness also got me thinking about common “rules” for writers that can and often should be broken. One is that every character and every scene must move the plot forward.

Straley’s hero Cecil Younger travels to Washington with roommate Todd to piece together the ties between two missing IWW members from the Centralia massacre and a woman found dead decades later in a Sitka hotel. In one memorable scene, Todd disappears in a bus station. Though the characters who surface during Cecil’s frantic search don’t technically move the plot forward, they richen the narrative. Likewise, the characters encountered by Cecil and Todd as they forego the bus and hitchhike to Centralia add rich texture, though the plot would work just fine without them.

A lesser writer might have condensed these scenes, writing off the minor characters as distractions who play no significant role in advancing the plot. But Straley understands that it’s the fleeting moments and the passing glances that flavor our lives, and he knows enough to bypass the “rules.”

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