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Monday, December 11, 2017

The Weight of Words

When you are writing fiction, words carry a kind of weight. They work a bit like a camera lens, guiding the audience what to view and what to focus on. What subject you choose to spend words on in the scene shapes the audience's perception of the story.

However, there are some subjects in your story that deserve a heavier weight of words than others. For example, if your story is about a young girl trying to become a professional soccer player, and you spend a whole chapter talking about an old willow tree that grew in her childhood home's backyard (which carries no symbolic or ulterior value other than it's just an old willow tree she likes), you've spent more words on the subject than it was worth. The reader may not always be able to pinpoint what is wrong, but they'll feel like the story got uninteresting. They don't care about the tree. It's not important.

More often though, this sort of thing happens on a much smaller scale in a scene. Let's say that you have a scene where your protagonist goes to a religious event, and the purpose of the scene is that she needs to get specific information or help from a religious leader. If the narrator spends three paragraphs describing what the bathroom in the church looks like, the pacing is going to drag. The bathroom doesn't merit having that many words describing it. The bathroom doesn't deserve that much focus. It's not important to the story.

The more important a subject or idea is to the scene, the more words it's worth. The moment where the protagonist gets the needed information from the religious leader, is the point of the scene, so that moment merits more words than the bathroom does. This concept relates to my post a few months ago about discerning what should happen on-page from what should happen off-page. Part of learning how to write professionally, is learning how to gauge what subject merits what amount of words.

If you use a lot of words on a subject that isn't actually that significant to the scene or overall story, the text becomes unbalanced. That subject carries more weight than it's worth, and the text is leaning in that direction, when it should be leaning in a different direction.

This sort of thing can apply to almost all parts of a story. It relates to setting description. If your character is traveling to Idaho to view the total solar eclipse, but during the viewing, you spend more words describing a stranger's shoes than you do the actual solar eclipse, it's probably a problem. The story should be focusing, leaning toward the solar eclipse, but instead, it's leaning toward a random person's shoes. It's unbalanced.

It can happen with characters. If Lavender Brown gets more words and characterization about her than Ron Weasley in Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, we have a problem. Textually, Lavender Brown is getting more weight and focus. It's unbalanced. That plot line is supposed to be about Ron.

It can happen with theme. If we spent a whole chapter describing, pondering, and creating a whole history about the old willow in the protagonist's backyard, the audience will think it's going to be significant to the story, most likely in a thematic way. But if it isn't, and it has nothing to do with the story, than it has far more words than it merits. If the theme of your story is supposed to relate to love, but the text actually spends more focus and weight and pondering on the meaning of independence, your story is leaning in the wrong direction.

And of course, it can happen with plot. If you spend more weight on a tertiary plot than you do the primary plot, guess what? Either the tertiary plot became the primary--which often doesn't work, because the subject matter isn't as important--or the story is unbalanced.

Now, there is a reason I use the word "spend." It might sound weird to some of you when I say "spend weight." But spending is often exactly how it functions. Like money, you have a finite amount of words to spend writing your story. I'm not saying you can't write a big, fat, full novel. Your book is like a purchase. There are pots you need to purchase and there are houses you may need to purchase. A house needs more money to own. Some stories are like pots. Some stories are like houses. So the amount of words your story merits depends on what kind of story you want to tell. If words were like money, you wouldn't want to spend a whole chapter on an insignificant willow tree. You just way overpaid for that willow tree. The reader doesn't want all that money put into creating an amazing willow tree. They want you to spend it elsewhere. You spent too many words, too much weight, too much focus on that tree that the reader doesn't care about.

The pacing slows. The reader gets bored. You begin losing their attention.

Perhaps no words are more valuable than the words at the very beginning of the story. You have to win over the reader's care. You have to try to get them to be invested in the story. But if you spend your first chapter's words unwisely--spending two solid paragraphs describing an insignificant rock--the reader is going to be subconsciously tempted to put the book down. You. Are. Trying. To. Win. Them. Over. Don't spend the precious weight of the story describing a random rock.

In the beginning of the narrative, because the reader hasn't been won over yet, and you haven't gotten far into the story, every possible subject in the scene carries an equal weight--or perhaps it would be better to say, no weight. This means every word you start writing, begins to shape the story's, or scene's focus.

Because the reader isn't invested in the story yet, it's very important that you don't overspend your words on any subject. Create the scene, but do it on a tight budget. Spend enough words on the subjects to create them in the reader's mind, but not so much that it becomes overwrought and uninteresting.

As the reader becomes more invested as the story progresses, they will begin to care more about stuff that is more "expensive." They'll sit through longer descriptions. They'll sit through two solid paragraphs about the concept of independence. If the willow tree is thematic, and therefore significant to the story, they may even sit through a whole chapter on it.

But that's the catch. To merit a more expensive price tag, it needs to be more significant than other subjects.

With all that said, though, in some cases, it is possible to break that rule and open a story with two fat paragraphs pondering the concept of independence, but it needs to be good, clever, and either entertain the mind or the feelings. Don't spend $100 on a cliche. If you are going to open that way, you've got to bring something new to the table, and talk about the concept of independence in a way the reader hasn't seen before.

Now back to the very beginning, where the reader isn't yet invested in the story. Subconsciously, when they begin reading your book, they're trying to decide if they care about it. So what you spend your words on is important. Luckily, depending on your genre, you should know what your reader picked up the book for. If they picked up romance, they want romance. If they picked up adventure, they want adventure. If they picked up something humorous, they want to laugh. Usually the real romantic moments and real adventure happens later in the story, which is why you need to promise the reader with hooks that if they keep reading it, they'll get to it. In a romance, this might mean in the starting scene, you spend a few words on your progatonist's loneliness. In adventure, this might mean in the opening, your character mentions his desire to find aztec treasure. This is one of the reasons so many people in the writing industry say you should start your story with your character having a goal of some kind--it often makes it easier to make promises to the reader. It's only one reason, but it's a reason.

One final point I need to make so that everyone reading this doesn't go off and way overwrite the truly significant subjects of their story. There is another well-known writing rule: less is more. Often this is true with significant subjects. Promises, teases, hooks, subtext, are bigger than what's on the page, and naturally carry more weight because of that--the "rest of the words" happen in the reader. They don't need to be overwrought. Often those things are best short and powerful. This is because carefully choosing specific words--words that mean more than what's actually on the page--carry more impact than an overwrought passage. Less is more. But that's veering into a different topic too big for this post.

Suffice it to say that insignificant subjects should not unbalance your story because you've spent more words on them than they merited. And don't shortchange the more important parts that deserve more words--more weight, more focus.

Last of all, don't forget, though, that in key moments, sometimes less is more, because what's being said is bigger than what's in the text. 

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