A few weeks ago I watched the movie Finding Forrester once again. It’s a lovely movie about a man named William Forrester,an author who published one great novel then became a recluse living in New York, and Jamal Wallace, an unlikely teenage savant who becomes Forrester’s friend.
Early in their relationship Forrester asks Jamal to stir his soup, so a skin won’t form. Jamal asks him why this is needed and Forrester explains.
Moments later Jamal asks Forrester a question about his personal life. To which Forrester answers, “That is not a soup question.”
So exactly what is a soup question? It’s a question with an answer that will benefit the person asking. In the first instance, Jamal learns something about various ways to make soup. This is to his benefit. It increases his knowledge. But as to the second question, Forrester points out that knowing intimate details of his life is not a benefit to Jamal’s.
As writers we know the importance of moving the story forward. Much as we would like to add interesting comments, side stories, silly anecdotes, and the like, editors, at least my editor, take a dim view of it. My editor is happy to cut paragraphs and whole pages that she feels don’t move the story forward. And this can be hard for a writer, especially when you have an incredibly clever little bit of prose that you really feel needs to be shared.
And as a new writer, I was fairly intimidated by the editing process. I first had to get over the agonizing realization that my ‘baby’ might need some repair work done. After the initial hysteria, a strong drink, and my husband’s gentle, but constructive “Do whatever the hell you want!’, I realized that what I wanted to do was improve my book. But because I was such a novice I just assumed that the editor knew best. This I had to rethink just a bit when my she deleted about one hundred or so words that “didn’t move the story forward” without realizing that I had planted a clue in those very words. After time to digest so many things about editing and the whole writing process, I came to the conclusion that editors are not always right and that not everything has to move the plot forward. I think that adding another dimension is not only possible, but good for the story – as long as it’s a ‘soup question’!
So now when I’m writing I ask myself two questions. Does what I’m writing move the story forward and, if not, does it benefit the reader? With this in mind I’m free to add a day of useless sailing on the Chesapeake Bay because it sets the stage. I’m free to include silly mishaps that do nothing to move the plot forward, but do a lot to help the reader bond with the characters.
This all may sound elementary to a seasoned writer, but for a woman who was taught by some rather rigid nuns to follow strict rules at all times (rulers on knuckles, not an uncommon occurrence), it’s a truly liberating idea. So for any writers out there who care to take advice from me, I would say have some fun, move that plot right along, but answer couple of decent soup questions along the way.
Holy Redeemer School 1959
I loved showing this film to my writing students in China. And when they asked if “soup question” was a common American idiom they should know, and I explained that it was unique to the film, they had faith in their outdated idiom textbooks again. Always glad to be of service.
I had forgotten that Matt Damon performs William Forrester’s lawyer.