Everything Needs a Purpose

I’m almost through the second week of school, and I’m curious about something. In one of my classes, we were talking about one of Ernest Hemingway’s short stories, and my professor pointed out that everything in the text had a purpose. Every single thing. It seemed impossible, but as I read it a couple times, I saw it.

She was right. Every line had a purpose, either to create tone, foreshadowing, or symbolic language. It was amazing that I could go through each sentence and pick a reason why it was there, why the words were in a specific order, why he chose this one instead of that. While that’s great for critical reading, it personally affected my writing the next day.

As I was typing, all I could think was, “Why this? Why this word? Let’s make it this instead. Why would she say this? Why am I having her do this? Could I get that across in a different way? Can I make this sentence tighter?”

Now, I get it. Hemingway is, well, Hemingway. He’s a master, and he wrote this passage with care and surely plenty of revisions. Only I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if we took that critical eye we use to analyze capital “L” Literature to our own writing. What if we tried to examine every sentence we wrote? Surely, that would help us craft a more meaningful story, but would it destroy it, as well? Can you overdo it? Is analyzing every single sentence of every draft really a possibility, and not just something to do with the works of illustrious, dead authors?

So I was wondering if any of you have done this with your own work. Have you gone through line by line to examine every piece of your work? Could you get through the entire manuscript? Was it helpful? Or did it only make things worse? Did your story try to morph into something it wasn’t?

Obviously everything in your story does need a purpose, but is there a point where that’s too much? Is it enough to stop at the existence and actions of characters, or do we need to ensure purpose in every word, as well?

6 comments on “Everything Needs a Purpose

  1. Exactly!!!! Every line has to have a target! All of the characters’ actions and words must have an underlying purpose. I think the trap a lot of writers get into is when the add random plot twists, sex scenes, or weird jokes just because they can. Everything has to make sense for the characters and their individual stories! Fantastic post

  2. The closest I’ve come to applying this to my own writing is in the editing stage, where I sometimes try to find a way to improve every paragraph, however pleased I am with the initial version. The thought of consciously tackling the purpose of every sentence is exhausting, though I can see its value.

  3. MatrixTracker says:

    Everything has a purpose, but I’d argue it isn’t for you to place it. It is a subtle thing that creeps in as you write, not a blatant attempt at creating something critics will love. By forcing it, you lose style.

    • I agree to an extent, but some stuff definitely needs your thinking about it. And meaning doesn’t just have to be symbolic or metaphoric but could just hold meaning to the plot, characters, etc.

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