Craft,  Creativity

Top 10 Ways To Add Meaning To Items In Your Story

It’s a pity that I don’t hold murder weapons on my desk. If I did, I could describe them and stick them in my work-in-progress.

Don’t know what you should write about? Look no further than the items on your desk. Items, of course, often play key roles in stories. Sometimes they are symbols that need repeated mentions or hints to their meaning. 

How do you create the importance of an item in your story? 

Ask yourself these questions, at least in the drafting stage, so you can figure out how your character uses it and what it means to them.

1. Describe its appearance.  Describe the item’s shape, texture, color, material, height, and width. Take your time and observe subtleties.

2. Describe it using the senses. What is the temperature of its surface? Does it have a smell? A taste? How heavy is it in your hand? Would you call it delicate or sturdy? Practical or ornamental? Does it make a noise, when you squeeze it, when you bang it on something? What kind of force would destroy it? 

3. Describe its sentimental or retail value. My little cheap jewel box, probably a Christmas Tree Shop purchase, opens up. The space that it hides inside is tiny enough for a few beads and a coin or two. It could, in one story or another, be a container for something that needs to stay hidden.

4. Describe its ownership. How does the owner of your item treat this item? In The Lord of the Rings, the ownership of the ring was important. The way that Smeagol treated it was different from the way that Bilbo treated it and that was different from the way that Frodo treated it. Each character had a different agenda in the ownership of it. 

5. Describe its purpose. The purpose and the value will often dictate how it’s treated by the owner. Unexpected purposes for your props can make your story more interesting. Is this item a hiding space? Has it been used maliciously? 

6. Describe who wants it. What if one of your characters wants this item and can’t get it? Spend time developing that character, ask yourself why his desire for this item is so strong. Perhaps this plays a critical point in your story. 

7. Describe its future. What will happen if it is destroyed or lost or put in the wrong hands? Is someone killed over this item? The item’s owner loses the item to someone else, what happens now? Is another secret revealed? 

8. Describe what it symbolizes. Stretch your imagination and think of this item symbolically in a way no one has thought of. The symbolism could be something abstract like freedom or bravery or it could also represent a relationship, a bigger quest, or a memory. Is the cigar really just a cigar?

9. Describe other objects that are attached to it or that are associated with it. For example, the set of keys are more than just keys, they are entryways into the house, the car, and the office. Often a key chain is personalized for the owner. All of these separate items come together to create one item: the keys. 

10. Describe what isn’t expected. It is a set of car keys, but it’s also the weapon she defended herself in the parking garage, the item that set off the metal detector at the airport, or the murder weapon that got lost in the bottom of her purse. Ask yourself, does the item travel? Does the item wear down? Collect germs? Change composition, like a melting chocolate bar? These factors could make the item more interesting to your story and to your reader. My favorite Chekhov’s gun scene was the John Deere tractor in Mad Men. 

Objects can be powerful props in your novel writing.

So, what’s on your desk? How can you describe it? How can you incorporate that into your work-in-progress?

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.