So what? Who cares?
Those words were spoken to me with a shrug and a flounce by a fellow writer many years ago, and though they may not have been intended kindly, those questions are some of the best writing advice I’ve encountered. In fact, I’ve co-opted them, writing them in the margins of my clients’ manuscripts and including them in critiques.
You’ve probably heard advice about cutting anything that doesn’t advance the plot, establish the setting, develop character, etc., and may have wondered how to know what to keep and what to cut. How do you know which actions develop character, or which piece of description is unnecessary? That’s when you ask, “So what? And who cares?”
Not a hard-and-fast rule: Don’t ask these questions of your work until you have a completed draft.
Suggestion: Maybe hold off asking these questions for the second draft, too.
Recommendation: Drafts three or four, when the editing and revising is getting serious and nitty-gritty, is probably the best time to demand of every scene, descriptive passage, line of dialogue, even every sentence, “So what? Who cares?”
As an editor, I have had the difficult and sometimes heartbreaking task of telling a writer to cut a beloved passage because it’s a distraction, a rabbit trail, or carries no storytelling weight. It does not serve the story.
Sometimes it’s a detailed description of a house or a dress or a car, but the described item has only a passing place in the broader story, and we never revisit it.
However, if the writer can somehow link that description to the place where a character grew up and how rosy memories compare with reality, or to an impoverished character’s love of couture and her scrapbook filled with magazine cutouts of fashion shows, or to the nostalgia a character has for the classic cars his dad used to drive, then the passage may have a reason to remain.
It may still need to be revised or moved, but at least now it helps tell the story by revealing character.
So what? = Why does a scene exist? What point does a character serve? Why does a character say a line of dialogue, make a particular gesture, believe one thing and disbelieve something else? Why do readers need to know the bakery is across the street from the post office?
Who cares? = Who will care if the dog dies, the car breaks down, the grandmotherly neighbor’s house is invaded? If the reader is supposed to care, the characters must care, and before the characters can have an emotional stake in what happens, the author must be invested in the story.
Characters need dimension beyond cardboard cutouts that merely serve the plot or the action. Think of all those superhero flicks where buildings, cars, and streets in New York are destroyed, as if all the people living or working or driving or sauntering there are not worth as much as one superhero saving another superhero from the villains. Hey. People matter. Characters matter. You — their creator — must imbue them with worth. There must be consequences for their choices, for their lives or deaths, for the other characters who encounter them.
And by consequences, I don’t necessarily mean negative events (punishment, resentment, etc.). Consequences can be emotional attachments, such as a childless couple adopting a child, or consequences can be new perspectives, such as when a classroom full of know-it-all teenagers meet a teacher more interested in their futures than they are. Consequences can be questions, answers, new directions.
So, when your story has been through a round or two of revisions, rigorously apply So what? Who cares? and watch the story gain a tighter plot and a greater emotional connection with readers.