Creating Meaning... Simply and Elegantly

by Lynda Davies

 

We write because we have something to say. 

Regardless of the type of writing we employ, being able to tell our audience what we mean is of critical importance. It's true of fiction, biography, departmental report or email. In this article I'm going to focus on 'audience' and 'meaning', exploring why I believe they're so important to good writing, and looking at ways we can create meaning simply and elegantly in fiction.

My next column will examine this issue for non-fiction and I'll share a rather salutary lesson learned recently.

Audience

There are three rules of thumb I keep in mind when writing. I need to:

(1)   know who I'm writing for;

(2)   think what it would be like for someone, who doesn't know me or my work, to read it for the first time; and

(3)   consider what my audience will be able to understand.

For example: a mystery novel for adults vs. children. Writing for an adult audience allows us to be far more cryptic and subtle than writing for young adults or children because it is usual for adult readers to have had more experience with this type of writing and it is likely they will be able to recognise the tropes (or common methods and elements) of the genre.

If we were writing one for children we'd need to set up the mystery earlier and seed the core elements a little more frequently. I've seen this done with a character whose main function was to dig up clues.

Every time we write we should identify what kind of experience with our type of writing our target audience is likely to have had, and to pitch the story arc, plot structure and language accordingly.

This was brought home to me beautifully the other day when watching a fabulous Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. With thirty-five characters and a long and complex opening, there was no way my ten year-old could have followed the subtle relationship connections being made. The purpose of such an opening was not to start with a bang, but to show the intricacies of relationships, social hierarchies and the tension they create. (By the way, I never considered letting my son watch the movie.)

Letting an audience know what to expect is also very useful. With some carefully constructed scene-setting in the blurb, I was able to work out what style the movie was going to be and therefore the 'rules' of the genre. The scriptwriter and director had a particular audience in mind when they produced their film and everything they did was aimed at coaxing their audience into watching it and providing enough detail at the appropriate times to keep them interested all the way to the end. Having set up those expectations, they honoured the plot structure and conventions of the genre (albeit with a twist) and they didn't introduce alien elements that would have confused their audience.

It's the same with books. If we have a clear idea of who we're writing for (age, likely life experience, the types of language and ideas with which they could be familiar etc.,) then we can establish our story confidently and express it in such a way that our readers will be able to understand and enjoy it.

Meaning

I want to share with you a comment from a friend and colleague whose life-long passion has been learning and teaching built upon a love of the written word and how meaning is communicated and understood.

Three of us were talking about the quality of writing and how it can affect meaning. The discussion referred to writing by university students and academics. Both of these friends have extensive experience in reading and assessing student writing and both act as referees for academic journals and therefore see a lot of academic papers at various stages of readiness for publication as well.

The comment that stuck in my mind and inspired this article was:

If you have a crummy sentence and a crummy paragraph, not only will it obscure your meaning, but it will interrupt the progression of your ideas and ultimately destroy your meaning.

My friend has a wonderfully direct (and some say rather pungent) style, but she takes extraordinary care over the clarity and honesty of her own writing and you can always be sure that you read is what she meant.

She firmly believes that it is in the act of writing that we organise our thoughts and link our ideas together to create meaning for ourselves as well as our readers. If we don't give ourselves the time to review what we've written and to think through what it says, then we run the risk of leaving half-formed thoughts on the page.

Too much is then left up to our reader, and we risk damaging their desire to keep trying to excavate the progression of our ideas and hence the meaning from our text.

With that in mind, let's look at the variety of tools at our disposal. By 'tools' I mean the components of writing we use in fiction to tell our stories. They include:

(a)    dialogue components (direct speech, action, and thought);

(b)   description of setting; and

(c)    character point-of-view.

In common with other styles of writing we also have:

(d)   active or passive language;

(e)    sentence structure; and

(f)    sentence flow.

When I write I do a 'rapid first draft' which I read, edit (or re-write), read again, and edit again. In each stage of the process, I clarify my ideas and improve the way I express them. The thing to remember is that we have to start somewhere, with something.

In terms of fiction, having completed my rapid first draft, I identify the dialogue components, descriptions and point-of-view and look for the ways in which they support each other to create meaning.

Direct speech, for example, lets our characters tell each other things, but on its own is very bare and would be difficult to follow if that was the only component on the page. Our readers will learn much more if we also include some internal reflection from the main point-of-view character. Providing detail on the setting is beneficial, too, because the environment can affect how our characters react (even force them to act oddly sometimes); and showing our readers what our characters are doing (or hiding) builds another layer of meaning into the episode.

The following examples are from my manuscript The History Hunters and King Arthur's Lost Kingdom.

In "Extract A" Liam, the lead character has just discovered that Arthur has disappeared from historical and literary records. He doesn't know why and he hasn't told anyone about his discovery yet. After proving to himself that Arthur really has gone, Liam went home and collapsed into bed.

There are two drafts of the same scene. The second one is longer, but gets across what I was really trying to say. The first one used the reference to the "flu" as short-hand for the "I'm-so-heavy-I-can't-move-feeling" we get sometimes when disaster strikes. But I realised that: (a) my readers might not make that connection; (b) I would have to explain later in the story that he didn't really have the flu'; and (c) that Liam really wanted to go back to sleep in the hope that the afternoon events were part of a bad dream and not real at all.

I think all of that is carried better in Version 2 than in Version 1.

Extract A - Version 1

Liam opened his eyes and was surprised to see that it was almost dark. His arm was thrown back on the pillow behind his head, but it was so heavy he could barely lift it. His whole body felt as if it had been pummelled. 'I don't need the flu now,' he said to the ceiling.

Extract A - Version 2

For a long moment all he could do was lie there. It was such a struggle to get his eyes opened. When he finally managed it he was surprised to see that the sky outside was almost dark. His eyelids, however, were the only part of him that had moved in response to his mother's call. One of his arms was thrown behind his head and the other dangled over the side of the bed. Both were too heavy to lift. His legs felt like they were filled with lead and had not even twitched. It was far easier to just slip back into the forgetfulness of sleep.

In the second extract Liam has been told that he is a History Hunter, one of a small group of special people who are able to monitor history worldwide and detect any illegal changes to it caused by elicit time-travellers. His parents' closest friend is trying to explain who the History Hunters are and what they do.

I have highlighted the different components of this small scene so you can see how I break it up to check the balance of direct speech, action, thought, description etc.; and to see how they are supporting each other. In Version 2 you will see that I have edited the original, taking out un-necessary words, cleaning up awkward phrases and adding in some others to make my point clearer. I worked on combining character movement, reaction, inner-thought and speech to paint the picture I wanted.


Extract B - Version 1.

Liam shook his head. This was crazy - no, it was nuts. What was he doing here?

'What about across the world? How many are there?'

'A pod per continent,' replied the Professor.

Liam looked at him and frowned. This Professor was not the one he was used to. This guy was too serious. Liam was used to the Prof being the family jokester. Liam shook his head. He could not predict what the Prof was going to say or do. It was ... unsettling.

'So how do my Mum and Dad fit into this?'

The Professor answered immediately, but Liam had the feeling that he had practised the answer many times. 'They were almost the first of my Gatherers. We've been friends and colleagues for a long time. A long time.' As he looked away from Liam and down at his hands the smile that had lit his eyes disappeared. His face, now, looked drawn and ... stern.

Liam wanted to know more. Obviously there was a lot more that the Professor could tell him.

'And?'

'Another time, Liam. You know your parents and I have worked together at the University for many years. That work has been both for the University and for the History Hunters.'

The note of finality in his voice was something Liam recognised from the family friend. The Prof was not going to talk any more about it now - in front of everyone else. But maybe he'd talk later, at home. Besides, his parents clearly had a lot to tell him and maybe he should hear their version first.

The others all heard the stern note in the Prof's voice as well. They responded by getting up from the table and taking their dishes away. When they had cleared the remainders of the food and plates, they settled back in to what they had been doing when Liam had arrived.

So it was just Liam and the Prof sitting at the table - opposite each other, but not talking.


 

 

Extract B - Version 2.

Liam shook his head. This was crazy. This was not what he came here for, but his curiosity was getting the better of him.

'What about across the world? How many are there?'

'A pod per continent,' replied the Professor.

There was not a trace of humour left in the Professor's voice now and Liam frowned. What had happened to the family jokester who always saw the funny side of life? He had become too serious and unpredictable. It was ... unsettling.

'So how do my Mum and Dad fit into this?'

The Professor replied immediately, and with what appeared to be a very practised answer. 'They were almost the first of my Gatherers. We've been friends and colleagues for a long time. A long time.' As he looked away from Liam and down at his hands the smile that had lit his eyes disappeared. His face, now, appeared drawn and ... stern.

'And? There has to be more to it than that.'

'You know your parents and I have worked together for many years. That work has been for both the University and the History Hunters.'

The note of finality in his voice was something Liam recognised. The Prof was not going to talk any more about it now - in front of everyone else. But maybe he'd talk later, at home. 'Besides, Mum and Dad clearly have a lot they haven't told me. Maybe I should hear their version first,' Liam said to himself.

Apparently all the others heard the stern note in the Prof's voice as well. They responded by getting up from the table and taking their dishes away. When it was all clean they drifted off to pick up what they'd been doing before afternoon tea.

That left just two of them sitting at the table - opposite each other, but not talking.

I hope you can see where my thinking in Version 1 was clarified and communicated better in Version 2 through Liam's observations and internal reflections.

I'll leave you with a quote from Joseph M. Williams, author of a wonderful book Style: Lessons in clarity and grace which talks about writing and re-writing to clarify our thinking and expression of meaning.

A warning: if you think about the principles offered here as you draft, you may never draft anything. Most experienced writers get something down on paper or up on the screen as fast as they can. Then as they rewrite that first draft into something clearer, they understand their ideas better. And when they understand their ideas better, they express them more clearly, and the more clearly they express them, the better they understand them ... and so it goes, until they run out of energy, interest, or time. ...

So use what you find here not as rules to impose on every sentence as you draft it, but as principles to help you identify already-written sentences likely to give our readers a problem, and then to revise those sentences quickly. (p 9)

We'll explore Professor Williams' principles more in my next column when we look at clarity, elegance and meaning in non-fiction.

References

Davies, L.   The History Hunters and King Arthur's Lost Kingdom, unpublished manuscript to be submitted as Dissertation, 2009

Williams, Joseph M.,   Style: Lessons in clarity and grace. 9th ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.

Until next time,

Lynda.

© Lynda Davies

 

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