Thoughts from Starbucks: On the purpose of Language, the Story, and My experience with a Beta-reader
Recently, I had a conversation with one of the employees at the local Starbucks in which I often visit (caffeine addiction, so...). In the conversation, I found that she is a writer as well. It was a brief encounter, but it was still enough to spark thoughts into my mind——thoughts primarily on the essence of the story itself.
Language has one function: Communication.
All language is designed to do this one thing.
I remember my Intro to Composition 2 class during my second semester of college. The professor began his class by writing the word “SIGN” in big, bold, letters on the board. At the age I was, I was not prepared for the simplicity in which this word would begin to imply, and it was not until much later that the lecture would “click.”
He said: “A word, is a sign.”
It is such a bare——such a plain definition of the concept, yet it is the greatest definition I have yet to encounter. It is because words are signs.
A word represents a concept: Abstract or concrete, moving or stationary, true or false.
This applies to the story, as well. A story, at its most basic——most cellular level——is a variety of words which, when placed in particular combination, convey an idea. This idea, in terms of stories, creates the illusion of the world, or a world. The writer of fiction, then, is alike the magician; the storyteller is an illusionist and a weaver of words. The job of the storyteller is to combine these words into the right order to make the reader (or listener) care about non-existent people, in a non-existent reality, doing non-existent things.
On my way home from the coffee shop, I considered this; I considered how these things could make me a better writer, then, I thought about my beta-reader. Having a beta-reader has been, for me, the ultimate example of the importance of using words to create the illusion mentioned above——and using words correctly. The thing is this: I never realized just how blind I was——just how little I knew about writing the story——just how blind I was because I knew the story in its entirety.
So, what do I mean?
I mean that I know what I mean. I know the story; I know what the story is supposed to say. My reader, on the other hand, does not. This, then, means that the reader only knows the story through the information I give her. There have been many times when my beta-reader has come back and said something like “So [CHARACTER] is really...” or “So [THIS] is [THAT]?”
Conversely, these times fill my pulse with anxiety as I think “Oh no! What have I done to make her think that?”
What the reader thinks about your story, whether true or false, is not their fault. They only understand what has been communicated to them; they only comprehend the ideas that the writer’s words have conveyed to them.
I have learned, through many semi-anxiety-attacks as a writer, just how crucial it is to watch my words. When I edit, I ask myself “Does that word mean ___?” and “What am I trying to convey? What am I trying to tell the reader?” Through my experiences with the beta-reader, I am learning to be a bit more discerning with my diction.
That said, I am glad that writing is, like all arts, an incremental process. I am merely learning and have far to go. That is my contemplation for the week, and I can say is this: Next time you edit, watch your words and say, “What idea am I trying to convey?” :)