Then I got all lyrical and, keeping with the angel theme, had Nina put on a long white satin nightie. She was upset, mopped her tears with a tissue which she then shredded, into feather-like pieces.
And then I was stuck. Had no idea where to go next with the story. I took it to my writing class and read it out, as far as I’d got. Those people were amazing and came up with lots of inspirational comments which gave me an idea for how to finish the story. The class tutor, Della Galton, said something I’ve never forgotten and which is the whole point of this post – she picked up on my bits about the white nightie and shredded tissue and said although these were lovely details I should only keep them in the story if they were important – they couldn’t stay there just for the sake of it. It’s the old adage – kill your darlings. If a bit of writing has no purpose in the story, ie doesn’t move the story on in any way, then however beautiful it is it should be cut because it isn’t earning its keep. This is especially important in a short story where there’s no room for superfluous words.
I ended the story by having Nina so worried about the angel that she went back out again in her car, dressed in her nightie, to the spot where she’d seen it. And there, in the ditch beside the road, was a cyclist who’d hit a pothole, broken his leg and was in a bad way. He mumbled something about ‘his angel’. Nina’s husband turned up – he’d discovered her missing, and got worried. He’d seen the shredded tissue and remembered her story about having seen an angel, so he had followed her to the spot she’d described. He had a phone so was able to call an ambulance for the cyclist. When Nina told him what the cyclist had muttered about also seeing an angel, Nina’s husband laughed. The poor cyclist was delirious with pain, and seeing Nina standing there in her long white nightie he must have imagined she was his guardian angel. Which actually, she was, in her way, as she was the one who found him.
I sold this story twice – to My Weekly and to Australian That’s Life. The story worked – you could side with Nina and believe in angels or side with her husband and accept the rational explanation. The details I’d put in were all used again later in the story. The story ends in a satisfying way – Nina and her husband make up, as he realises that her instincts helped save the cyclist, and she accepts that her vision of a tiny angel might have been a touch fanciful after all.
Since writing that story, I’ve often thought about what I learned from it, particularly regarding making good use of detail. Those little details like my white satin nightie and the shredded tissue can bring a story to life, but they’ve got to be there for a purpose, not just as pretty prose. By all means write them in on the first draft, but if they don’t end up adding anything to the story, chop them out later on (or, change your story so they do become essential). I try to keep this in mind always, even when writing my novel. Obviously in a novel there’s more space for description and you can include some which is just there for scene-setting, but it all works so much better if every single piece of description also helps add to the story in some way.