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Friday, January 17, 2014

Forgotten Story Elements

When editing, there are whole lists of things to look for, correct, and incorporate. Books and books have been published on the subject. However, few address how to handle those elements an author forgets about while writing the story.

In this, I don’t mean elements such as chapter hooks, turning points, proper punctuation, or the things typically found on these lists. I mean elements that the author comes up with all on his own.

For example, in the novel I’m finishing edits on, currently titled Drowning Rock, the hero acquires a dog at about the midpoint. As I was editing, I realized that the dog hung around for about two chapters, vanished mysteriously, and then reappeared at the end of the story. Sadly, I didn’t catch this until I’d already completed several edits, and not one of my beta readers realized it either, though one commented that he enjoyed the dog. Naturally, this could not continue. I had two choices that every author in this situation faces.

1. Remove the element. I considered this for the dog. One of the biggest ways to decide if this is the route an author should take is to ask what impact the element actually has on the story. If it isn’t much, odds are, the element should be removed.

2. Give the element greater significance. If the element does indeed impact the story and cannot easily be removed, yet it still gets dropped at some point, go back and write in reasons why it should be significant. Make connections between it, other characters, other scenes, and the themes of the story. The larger number of connections something in a story has, the greater its significance.

So how do you do all this?

Let’s go back to the poor little dog I abandoned after chapter 16, then suddenly recalled in chapter 30. I asked myself that first questions: What significance does the dog play in this story? On first glance, it didn’t appear that he added much. His presence caused no major shifts in the plot, and the few things he did do, someone else could have done. So, logically, I should eliminate him.

However, I kept coming back to it. The dog didn’t want to take off. He clung to the story much as he did to the main character. So, I had to ask why. Why wouldn’t he willingly go away?

My first thought was that, perhaps, I just liked the dog and was reluctant to get rid of him. Of course, dogs are cute, and I’m a dog person. I’d invented him, so naturally, I thought he was awesome. But those weren’t good reasons to keep him. After addressing them, the dog still wouldn’t go away.

Which led me to the next question: What was going on under the surface that I hadn’t yet acknowledged?

In this case, I realized that the dog might not fulfill any major plot holes. I might even be able to cut him out completely, but he did something important for the hero of the story. He embodied hope. Drowning Rock is a dark tale of a necromancer, impossible odds, and desperate heroism. The hero needed that bit of innocent light and life amidst all he faced, and in the final scene, the dog symbolizes the future and that essential hope.

Once I realized that, I couldn’t just cut him out, but he couldn’t be the random mutt in only three chapters either. He had to take on greater significance. But how do you manage that without having to massively rewrite. (As a general note, sometimes, no matter how you wish otherwise, major rewrites are necessary.)

First, I increased his presence in the story. I asked myself, what impact could he have in this scene? And this one? And so on. In answering that question, possibilities began to open up. He became the hero’s companion in a way he had not been before. He fought at the hero’s side and gave warning of danger. As a result, the bond between them grew far stronger than it had in all my previous versions, and all it took was occasional, well considered changes.

Second, I gave the dog connections beyond the hero. He connects with the love interest, bringing her comfort as only a dog can. He also gave other characters in the story something to do at times when, otherwise, they were just standing there as silent props.

Third, I used the dog to deepen the conflicts of the story. For example, the hero has a touchy history with family as his first family banished him and his second betrayed him. The dog’s presence allowed me to explore that more directly in a scene that had otherwise lacked it.

Lastly, all of this worked together to deepen the symbolism the dog represented. Hope takes on much greater significance when it’s even more personally tied to the characters.

In your own writing, are there any story elements you’ve let slip by the wayside? Are they significant to the story? Is it something you can infuse with greater significance and connection to your story?

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