How writers can improve their novels by self-checking the ‘density of significance’

February 17th, 2012 § 0 comments

Writers, especially those early in their writing career, can improve their books with a straightforward self-check. The best books tend to have a high density of significance. By this rather fancy sounding term I mean the numerical ratio of sentences to significant realisations. Let me explain.

On the least dense end of the scale you might find a self-published genre novel that has one significant thought per page. Anyone reading that page gets little more from it than, say, the fact that the investigator is talking to a witness. This watery stew is not particularly rewarding for the reader. Typically books of this nature would have lots of aimless dialogue or lists of visual details.

On the other end of the scale is poetry, by its nature the densest form of writing. In poetry, the basic units manipulated by the poet are very small – a phoneme, syllable or word. A good poem may require the reader to ponder every one of these, laden with significance as they are.

Notwithstanding the odd poetic turn, the basic unit in prose is larger than that of poetry. It’s the sentence. Prose stands to poetry as chemistry stands to nuclear physics – you deal with basic units of a different order. Being a non-academic type, I cannot point to any evidence in support of this assertion. It’s an opinion formed through more than 30 years of intense involvement with writing, nothing more.

Continuing this unscientific line of thinking: I said above that the density of significance refers to the ratio of sentences to significant realisations. These “realisations” are items of information with significance in the context of the book and the reading process.

To be significant in a novel, an item of information has to:

1. Advance the plot.

2. Heighten the drama.

3. Reveal the character.

4. Ravel the theme.

5. Build the atmosphere.

6. Strengthen the semblance of truth.

7. Be interesting or entertaining in itself. (Point 4 does this for me, by the way. Isn’t “ravel” an intriguing word!)

Ideally,  each sentence in a book should do one or more of these things. Expressed mathematically, the ratio of sentences to significant realisations should be >1.

This presents writers with a useful tool to improve their own writing: Look at your sentences one by one and ask of each whether it adds significance in at least one of the ways listed above. If not… cut it. Your book will be better for it.

Of course, it is possible to write a book with a high density of significance in this sense and still not have a great work of literature. Great literature requires that the significance goes beyond the confines of the written text itself, to include elements such as relevance, resonance, insight and beauty.

But if a book does have good density of significance, it will at the very least  be a good read that rewards readers for their trouble. Which is an admirable goal in itself. Readers deserve every reward a writer can give them.

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