04 September 2008

Story Elements #4: The Question of Significance

See prior story elements on conflict, pace and scenes.

Originally, this post was titled: Description and the Question of Significance. But the more I thought about it, and the longer the idea stewed, the more I realised that Significance is something that pervades not only description, but absolutely everything in an entire story. So. General title: Significance.

What is significance?

The best definition I've found comes from Wiktionary:

"The extent to which something matters; importance; meaning."

To my mind, that sums it up perfectly. Meaning. Importance. That which matters.

I first started thinking about the question of significance, even though I didn't realise it at the time, when I took a creative writing course at uni. Back then, I was very guilty of over-writing ('back then', she says, like she doesn't ever do it any longer.... O:)), and the lecturer was always on at me about this.

Only problem was, when he told me that my story was over-written, I had no idea what he meant.

A year or so later, I encountered the girls over at Toasted Scimitar, mostly in the context of Critique Circle. Those of you that have any familiarity at all with Merc will appreciate what I mean when I say it was her attitude to the more 'superfluous' elements of fantasy that made me once again consider the issue of significance.

Because what over writing, cliched writing, and often boring writing have in common is this: they lack significance. And what the lecturer had been trying to say finally sunk in: when you write a story, you do not need to list off every single action that your character does, every single thought that crosses their mind, every twist, every turn, every movement. That's over writing.

If you don't believe me, read this:

"She raced back into the hall and ran down the stairs. She grabbed the last rung of the banister and swung herself around towards the front door.
She gripped the door handle and rattled it violently. Locked. She sighed and pressed her forehead against the door. She closed her eyes. Harry would have noticed if Anna had been missing when he left for work. And if the front door was locked then he couldn't have been in since then."

Terrible, isn't it? :) Because almost none of it is significant to the story at hand. It could be cut in half and lose none of its impact.

As writers, we ought to asking ourselves the question of significance every step of the way, on every level. Does it matter if she turned right or left when she stormed away? Will it change things if I don't mention the height of her heels? Can that interaction be cut entirely? Does the scene even move the story forward? How about the chapter? And the hard ones: What about this character? This plot?

That one hurts. When you realise that your entire plot, your entire focus is meaningless and your story would be better if you scrapped it and started again - yeah. Ouch. And yet when you take a deep breath, move through the pain, and do it, the story become stronger - and so do you :)

Just in case you're still not convinced, I have proof. Back in May I wrote a short story. It was an idea that had been kicking around in my head for a while, and I was quite attached to it. I wrote the story, and it came out at nearly 4500 words.

The feedback was positive on the whole, but agreed on one thing: there was no point to some of the scenes. So I bit the bullet, and deleted them. At one point, I also deleted one of the characters, subsuming his role into another character's - but that didn't work, so he got to come back :o) (Which just goes to show, finding the significant things doesn't always entail cutting.)

The story, now at 3463 words, has just received an honourable mention in an online magazine, as a story they wish they could have included in this month's publication. (But they got my name wrong, so you'll have to wait until they fix it before I post a link :o)). Significance matters.

Stick to what's significant, and only what's significant, and your stories will glitter like gems, separated from the dross of unimportance around them. A story that's significant is gripping, real, and unputdownable.

So, here's to significance! :)

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