Monday, 18 February 2013

What Makes An Idea Worthwhile?

Let’s say you have a character who is hungry. You decide to show the reader that he’s hungry by having him stare into a baker’s window looking at all the lovely cakes.

So he’s drooling, stomach rumbling and all these delicious cakes, which you describe in great detail, are just out of his reach.

You ask yourself, does what I’ve written convey my intention? And if you think it does, then that’s that.

But when other people read what you’ve written, they may not like it. They may say, yes, he’s hungry, but so what? It’s a lot of lovely cake description, but I know what a cake looks like. Yes his need for food is apparent, I get it. But why are you telling me?

And at that point you look back at the story and you ask yourself, why did I want the reader to know my character is hungry?

Because the decision to portray a particular element to the reader is only a small part of the writing process. Much more important is why you think the reader needs to know this. It can be tempting to assume the thoughts that occur to you wouldn’t have popped into your head if they didn’t have a reason to be there. That you don’t need to know what those reasons are, you’re just the conduit.

Which would be fine if those thoughts really did all fall into place without your involvement, but that’s rarely the case.

If I have the same hungry man steal a loaf of bread and that leads to him being chased by a singing French policeman (for example), does the stealing of the bread show him to be more or less hungry than him staring at cakes? I would say there is no obvious difference in that regard. Both show his desire for food.

But taking the bread leads to a series of events. Standing, looking, drooling, doesn’t.

What a scene does in isolation is only of use if you’re writing about a singular event. But a story is not about one moment. It is not a series of unrelated events. And it’s the writer’s job to work out the connections and connect them.

And while the poetic side of you might want to express itself through beautifully written description of dark, rich chocolate swirls that both capture the bitter desires of a man who hasn’t eaten for days and the decadence of the society in which he lives, that isn’t enough. Where do you want to go with that feeling?

Only when you know that can you look at what you’ve written and ask yourself: does this truly convey my intention? And while that answer may be a little more difficult to work out, it will also be a much better indication of whether what you’ve written will be worth reading. 
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.

21 comments:

Al Diaz said...

Have never thought about this. You've opened my eyes today to another aspect of writing that is new to me. I'm grateful!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good thing I'm not poetic!
I remember reading a book where the author spent two whole pages describing this woman's dress. There was no significance to the dress and the woman never appeared in any other scene. Boring and meaningless description!

nutschell said...

I love description--but not when it rambles on for pages without obvious meaning. :)

Nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@Al Diaz - you're welcome.

@Alex - No description of the shoes?

@Nutschell - I think beautiful description can totally work if it also has purpose to it.

Clarissa Draper said...

Great post. All I know is, I'm hungry now!

mooderino said...

@Clarissa - the truth is, whatever the question, the answer is cake. Always has been, always will be.

Anthony Ackerley said...

Interesting post. I agree fully with your take on the importance of connecting ideas and making what you write in a scene serve a greater purpose other than word count filler. I would also add though that it's the reader's responsibility to give the writer's ideas a chance to fully develop and see where (if anywhere) they're going with an idea that might not make sense at first.

Maybe that cake scene is written in the first chapter, and not referenced for most of the book. May seem like it was just there as filler and didn't serve a point, but then in the last chapter there's another cake scene, and maybe this time the character gets to eat some of the cake, to represent the changes that occurred in the rest of the story (whatever changes could be represented in a culinary aspect as that). Then it would bring things full circle in a way. But if the reader just dismisses it out of hand right away, they could miss a meaningful idea within the story.

Just another aspect of the multi-layered relationship between writer and reader

Anonymous said...

Oh, now you're just being mean moody, adding that picture at the end on the one day I have a chocolate shortage. I did have a question, but it turns out the answer was cake after all. ;) Great post. -AJ

mooderino said...

@Anthony - I don' think that's the case. The reader doesn't have that responsibility.

The writer might be able to convince some readers to do that, or some might choose to give the writer the benefit of the doubt, but they are not required to offer that charity. And the vast majority don't.

If the writer can't provide reasons for the reader to keep reading other than blind faith then they aren't doing their job.

That's not to say you can't bring things full circle or change apparent meanings as you proceed, but things that don't make sense now but will do later will be treated the same as things that will never make sense, because for the reader they are the same.

From the writers perspective there's a clear difference, but that's because they have knowledge of the future. They know where it's going.

The reader does not have that knowledge. A story that goes nowhere looks exactly the same as one where it all pulls together, and you quickly learn not to take the risk of reading an additional 200 pages to find out you've been left disappointed. Again. The risk of missing out on a good story is a much, much smaller one.

Once you're an established writer, of course, you can do what you want.

mooderino said...

@AJ - cheers. I'm off to finish that gateau I left in the fridge.

Rusty Webb said...

I think I get what you're saying here, I hope every bit of dialog, every tidbit of action, and every description that I write illuminates something vital to the larger story, and it's essential that every word pull double duty, both describing the detail AND revealing character (or story, whatever).

But easier said than done. It is my goal though.

Sarah Anne said...

I find I have better judgment of this sort of thing when I'm rewriting. Usually I'll just indulge all my silly ideas in the first draft, then when I look back, I'll think...why did I feel the need to put this detail in? What's the point? Is the reader going to get it or is it just an inside joke between me, myself, and I? Chances are I'll just end up cutting the whole thing rather than rewriting it to make it seem necessary.

I found this particularly amusing since food is a central part of my WIP. And sometimes the ideas really DO fall into place! But when that happens, I just figure my subconscious is ahead of me.

mooderino said...

@Rusty - double duty is a good way of putting it.

@Sarah Anne - It's great when the subconscious actually helps out (would be great if that happened more often).

Michael Offutt, Speculative Fiction Author said...

Great post, Moody.

mooderino said...

Cheers, Michael.

Damyanti said...

cool post! I question each word in my short stories and I guess I'll end up doing the same for my novel.

mooderino said...

@Damanti - it can be quite tiring process, but I've always found it rewarding in the long run.

Charmaine Clancy said...

I hear what you're saying... but now I'm hungry.

mooderino said...

@Charmaine - I believe the solution to your problem is cake.

M.L. Swift said...

Such wonderful advice, Moody. Especially the "addendum" in the comment response to Anthony about the reader's responsibility.

mooderino said...

@ML - cheers.

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