Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Finding Significance

In my day job I teach students how to write nearly every sort of paper they'll need for college. We cover six different writing situations throughout the year, the first one being a reflective essay from the point of view of the observer. Today in class the importance of finding significance for your writing came up and on my way home, I thought over what we discussed in class and realized it applies to writing fiction as well as non-fiction.


Each time you create a scene or a bit of business between your characters, it pretty much is assumed that scene or bit of business has a purpose. That it's important in one way or another. That purpose might not show up until much later in the novel, but it has to show up. For example, crime novels drop little crumbs of information throughout the entire story. Only at the end does the lead detective put them all together and give them meaning when he/she identifies the criminal.

I'm currently working on a fantasy novel, one I've been writing off and on for decades. Early on there's a scene where my young protagonist has spent his first night away from everything he's ever known and gets himself into a small bit of trouble. Very small. So insignificant I almost cut the scene.

But in discussing  this scene with my husband, I discovered he had a very different take on what was happening. What, to me, seemed to be just a little fun piece of my story, provided important character information to him. With that short, one-page scene, he understood right away the enormity of what the character was about to undertake -- and just how unprepared the character was for what was to come.*

In other words, determining a scene's purpose not only helps the reader, but helps the writer to a deeper understanding of where the character is coming from and where they need to grow.

The "So what?" factor

This was the sticking point with my students' today. So you're going to write about a particular event in your life. So what? Why should I care? Why should I spend my time reading whatever it is you end up writing about?

Good questions for fiction writers, too.

Readers should never shrug their shoulders and say, "So what? Who cares what happens to these characters?" As the creator/author/writer of the story, it's your job to MAKE them care. Write scenes that are significant, not only to the characters, but to the reader as well.

And that leads to:

Identifying with the character

Have you ever read a book and said of a character, "That's me! That's my life!" or "That happened to me. I know exactly how he/she feels!"

That's an author who not only found purpose for her characters and given you what you need to not even think the so-what question, but who has also imbued that character with enough believe-ability, enough plausibility, that you totally identify with him or her. The characters have significance and so do their actions.

Significance. Meaning. Weight. Worth. Importance. All synonyms with good characters and good scenes.

Over the next few weeks we'll take each of these in depth but for now, take a look at the activity below and see how you can start putting this to work for you right away.


Pull out your current work-in-progress and identify the significance of every scene. Break it down. What should readers learn from that scene: Is the plot moved forward or are important character traits established? Both of these are important and can give the reader significant information. Make a chart like the one below (optional: include another column and put P for plot and C for character significance)



B. wakes up under a wasp’s nest*
Shows how unprepared he is for life on his own

If you can't find ANY significance for the scene, ask yourself: does this scene really belong in the story? Why is it here if it has no purpose?

Why do this? Because if you don't, some college kid is going to do it for you...or worse, some reviewer. The LAST thing you want people writing about your work is, "This story has no point"!!!

For NaNoWriMo writers:

If you're a plotter and getting your ducks in a row for November, start plotting your scenes and finding the significance now. That way, come those thirty days, you won't waste time on scenes that aren't important.

If you're a pantser (like me), this will be an activity you'll want to come back to in December when you edit. Ideally you're doing it as you go, at least in your head (using those metacognitive** skills). For now, take a look at your current wip to better understand your own processes.

(Sidenote: use the links if you're not sure what those terms mean. They link to previous workshops on those approaches)

*Same scene in both examples
** Writers tend to call metacognition by a different name: the internal editor

Take care and let me know what you're working on in the comments!


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