“Only mention something if you’re going to bring it up again.”
I can’t tell you how many times my husband has brought this up in our discussions of books, movies, TV shows, anything with a storyline. And you know what? It’s absolutely true.
The best storytellers make every word count. There is no room for extraneous details, because every detail affects the story somehow, no matter how small it may seem at its first appearance.
Prime example: the bees.
Doctor Who, season 4, episode 1. Donna wants to find the Doctor again, but how do you find a man who travels through space and time?
“I just thought, ‘Look for trouble, and then he’ll turn up.’ So I looked everywhere — you name it. UFO sightings, crop circles, sea monsters — I looked, I found them all. Like that stuff about the bees disappearing, I thought, ‘I bet he’s connected.'” (Partners in Crime)
Passing comment, bees stuck in there among crop circles and UFOs. My husband and I talked about it all the way through season 4, though I don’t know that the bees were even mentioned again, maybe once more before the end of the season. But were they important?
Oh, you know. The only way to find Earth in the season finale.
Other examples: Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak, inherited in book 1 and vital in book 7. The garlin that Sage rolls across his knuckles in The False Prince. The silver candlesticks that are so dear to the bishop’s heart in Les Miserables.
Those little clues, the details that come back after pages and pages of waiting—those are the things that make a reader squeal and encourage obsessive speculation. Don’t let all that speculation go to waste by leaving loose ends.