Write It Sideways

How to Give Meaning to Every Word You Write

Today’s post is written by Christi Craig, a semi-finalist in the Write It Sideways regular contributor search. Thanks, Christi!

Write with a purpose. Who doesn’t do that?

Every time I sit down with pen and paper or laptop open, I have a goal in mind, be it word count or finished draft or a good, cathartic, venting about a project gone south.

But in the land of short stories and novels, writing with a purpose takes on an entirely different meaning: every character, every scene, even the landscape or weather must carry significant weight in the story. There’s no such thing as “filler” material.

I take that back. When cranking out a first draft of any story – short or long – there’s plenty of filler. It’s in the rewrites and edits where the not-so-necessary writing is either sent to a file of “tidbits for another time” or is refined in ways that gives the story more shape and meaning.

So, how do we ensure that our stories’ characters (especially the minor ones), scenes and landscape have purpose?

We study how those elements can work in storytelling.

Characters

Narrative gives us the structure we need to describe characters in a story, but dialogue and movement (or gesture) allow readers to understand those characters in a deeper way.Dialogue can be tricky. On one hand, we want a conversation on the page to read like we overheard it in real life. On the other hand, we don’t want to waste a reader’s time by throwing in, what Janet Fitch calls, “the meet and greet, and all that yack.”

Nathan Bransford points out in his post Seven Keys to Writing Good Dialogue, that “good dialogue…builds towards something [and] reveals personality.” The best conversations between characters are the ones where tone, mood, secrets are hinted at within the words.

Movement and gesture work the same. In an article for The Writer (July 2011), Thomas Kaufman says that “movement and gesture are important in writing, because they tell us visually what is happening internally.”

I’m having a bad day if I have a character shout, ‘I’m really angry at your infidelity right now!’ But what if the same character picks up a cherished wedding present…and smashes it without a word?

Inserting movement and gesture, even subtle gestures, in the middle of (or instead of) dialogue helps neutralize that tendency to let characters talk too much, and it reveals more depth to a character’s emotions.

Scenes

In Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure, James Scott Bell describes plot as a “disturbance to characters’ inner and outer lives,” and we use scenes “to illustrate and dramatize those disturbances.” Every scene, then, must have a direct effect on plot and a strong connection to character arc.

In my own writing, I’ve recognized failure and success in this area, as a result of workshopping my stories with other writers.

In one story, I combined narrative and dialogue well enough to create a scene with solid description of a time and place, but readers questioned why that particular scene was significant in the story as a whole. The meat of the story happened elsewhere, and the response from readers was that, while the scene worked, the story itself read disjointed.

In a draft of my novel, I wrote one scene as a simple interaction between a friend and a mother and her child. There wasn’t much dialogue, mostly observations made by the main character.

However, the scene appeared at a pivotal time in the story, and the interaction between those three very minor characters grounded my protagonist in the setting and hinted at something she wanted: family and hope.

And that’s the point: scenes should do more than just set the stage. They work to reveal a character’s mood, provide foreshadowing, or simply get the character to a place in the story where change happens.

Landscape and Weather

Speaking of setting the stage, landscape and weather must also be written with a strong purpose in mind, one that goes beyond a background for action. In a guest post on Historical Tapestry, Anna Solomon says this:

[Setting] is not just a hill, or a chair. It’s light. It’s texture. It’s all the sensory inputs that make up our characters’ worlds. . . . [W]eather isn’t just affecting these characters. It’s also being used…to express the characters’ feelings: aspects of their inner lives that can be better expressed through their sensory experience than by anything they might say or think.

In thinking about how setting can work well in stories, two novels in particular come to mind: Caroline Leavitt’s Pictures of You and Ilie Ruby’s The Language of Trees.

In Pictures of You, Caroline Leavitt opens her story with a heavy fog:

…[T]hen the fog moves again and she sees, almost like pieces of a torn photo, patches of what’s there.

With that simple passage, she sets the tone for her novel, one in which a broken life is reassembled in a patchwork kind of way.

In The Language of Trees, Ilie Ruby doesn’t use her description of the landscape lightly:

The willows here grow to enduring heights of one hundred feet, their narrow leaves and long branches bent toward the ground, never forgetting their home.

The magical element of the Diamond trees on the shore of Canandaigua Lake, along with weather, become a metaphor for the emotional and mental turbulence that surrounds her main characters.

In both of those novels, scenery and climate play as important a role in moving the story forward as any character or scene, proving that stories can only be enhanced when writers use all those elements – character, scenes, and landscape – with strength and in unison.

What about you? Have you noticed passages in your writing that act more as filler? And how have you turned those moments into more meaning?

Christi Craig writes flash fiction and short stories, and is currently at work on her first novel. For more about Christi and her writing, visit her website. You can also follow her on Twitter or friend her on Facebook.