Remember as a child jumping out of bed on Christmas morning and running into your living room to behold a tree surrounded by dozens of wrapped presents in all sizes? In your mind, this looks like the best Christmas ever!
You wait impatiently as your parents wake up, put on robes, get a cup of coffee and FINALLY sit down on the couch, nodding at you to open your presents. So you tear into the first box and find … nothing. It’s an empty box.
That empty box represents a broken promise. Christmas day, to a child, is all about getting presents. An empty box makes him feel cheated.Every book offers promises to its readers, promises made by the author. And it is the author’s responsibility to fulfill those promises. This concept of having no empty boxes in your story is sometimes referred to as Chekhov’s Gun. The famous playwright, novelists, and short story writer phrased it like this: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise, don’t put it there.” In other words, everything you introduce in a story needs to have a function in the story.
In a novel, you’ll have side plots and, usually, several or even many secondary characters. Every one of those must somehow inform us about the main character’s knowledge, feelings, motivations, strengths, weaknesses and so forth, or those of his/her main adversary. Those side plots and secondary character actions may be some of your best writing, but if the box is empty with respect to the main character, you must throw it out of your story.
In those grand, sweeping novels, like the latter ones in the Harry Potter series, such side plots may do little more than help define the edges of the universe you’ve created. That might inform the reader of the possible range of actions the protagonist might take or why the antagonist’s actions hit the main character so hard. But it must somehow relate to the protagonist’s mental/emotional/physical makeup, or provide some foreshadowing of why the circumstances are so bad for him/her, or how the situation might get even worse. The box can’t be empty.
I primarily write children’s books, and my presents are more constrained. In picture books, I reveal only the main character’s thoughts and actions. He/she must be the only one that all the action centers about. She/he may have friends that help reflect some part of her/his feelings or define the possible range of actions available to him/her. But side plots and developed side characters distract young readers, because the kids those books are written for can’t easily follow those plot lines, nor do they want to. In a picture book, such plot elements become like a whole other tree with its own set of presents that are off-limits.
As you get into books for older children, middle readers and chapter books, those constraints are progressively relaxed and are virtually gone by the time you reach YA novels. Yet even at that level of writing, every box must contain a present. A box here, as in novels for adults, may contain a small, seemingly uninteresting presents, but each must eventually be shown to have some relevance to the protagonist’s story, even if subtle.
To a child, an empty Christmas present box would be quite upsetting. To a reader, it will be, too.