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Discovering what your story is about.

February 11th, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments
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It is often said that a writer doesn’t necessarily know what his/her story is about when they start writing. It is sometimes said (normally in an English Literature class) that a writer doesn’t know what their story’s about when it’s finished, either. Another school of thought says that a writer should know what their story is about before they even start.

Now, I can’t claim to have much practical experience in novel writing, but I can see why my method of “about discovery” really wouldn’t suit it. You see, my way of going about things is to let the “about” just sort of happen.

puzzle pieces

Image courtesy of Liza on Flickr

It’s Never My Inspiration

It may well be different for you, but for me, my “about” is never the initial inspiration for the story.

It’s worth me clarifying at this point that by “the about” I’m talking of the kernel of your story – its purpose, its primary meaning, whatever. It’s not enough to say, “my story’s about aliens,” but you might say, “it’s about mankind trampling over natives in their desperation for resources, and the corruption of technology versus a more spiritual way of living” (you’ve seen Avatar, right?)

But I don’t sit there thinking, “I want to make a story about mankind trampling over natives… blah blah.” Instead I might start with one aspect of the story, one idea, like aliens that can communicate with each other through physical connections. It might be a character – the crippled ex-marine who gets a second chance on an alien world.

Or it might be a word, like “Unobtainium”. Or, “I want to make Fern Gully, but with aliens”. Maybe not.

But the kernal of my idea, the real about, comes later.

Digging it up

I am not a “pantser” (there’s got to be a better name for that) – I don’t entirely make things up as I go. I don’t plan things out in meticulous detail either, but I like to have an outline, and I like to have somewhat detailed backstory to the characters.

I don’t sweat about the true purpose of my story. If it reveals itself at the planning stage, then great, but if it doesn’t, I trust that it will come, and so far I have not been disappointed.

It’s a great moment, something that has just happened to me with a story I am writing now. It happened, as it often does, quite unexpectedly. I have been reading through my story so far, having already decided its getting away from me a little and I need to do a bit more digging into character backstories etc.

During this time I was reading up on story structure again (so many opinions, all roughly saying the same thing, but it pays to revise). One article mentioned that story structure describes an increase in chaos, until a climax is reached, and it hit me like a bucket of cold water in the middle of one of these particularly chilly nights we’ve been having.

This did not just describe the structure of my story (very vaguely) but actually what my story was about – an increase in chaos, largely brought about by the unintended consequences of the protagonist’s actions, and his struggle to somehow reign all of that in. Consider the following elements that were already in the story:

  • A protagonist who is coldly calculating, and who keeps to his own strict code (even if no one else can fathom it)
  • A world that is already largely without order or control
  • The protagonist listens to chaotic Jazz to help him think
  • An increasing amount of negotiations and deals, with several parties who all need to be satisfied

If I can try and make it more concise, the story is about one man, not trying to tame chaotic cause and effect exactly, but gain enough control that he can ride it to his next destination. This is set against a backdrop of one political organisation trying to take a hold of a free and thinly spread population.

I guess if you wanted to take it further, that’s a metaphor for humans trying to take control of chaotic systems generally.

Anyway, the point of all this rambling is that all the elements above were already there. The story already had a meaning, but I just hadn’t found it yet. I’m reminded of a passage from Stephen King’s On Writing, where he talks about unearthing stories. He compared stories to fossils – it’s as if all stories already exist and all he is doing is carefully scraping the dust off to reveal them.

It’s like that. Or it’s like jigsaw pieces falling into place, or the stars aligning, or any other metaphor you want to use for that incredibly satisfying moment where a plan comes together. It’s one of those moments I write for.

  • Craig

    Wasn’t it always hammered into us during lessons that we should know a story’s theme before we start?  I always hated that, because as you say, you may not start (rarely, do you do so, in fact) with that in mind.  What I have come to think about in recent years is that you should develop a strong style for your own writing.  That way, you can switch things up in terms of settings (if you’re someone who writes a lot in thwe same universe) or whether you do the dreaded switch of genre (which we all know is frowned upon by publishers)

    I don’t know if I just use that as an excuse to revisit the same themes over and over, but when I came to catalogue all of my projects that i was seriously working on, I found – and I was actually quite shocked by this – how many recurring themes I had.  In EVERYTHING I’ve written.

    So yes, does that make me a style over substance person?  Maybe I should write about that…

  • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

    I say, write what interests you. If you find a story idea exciting, chances are there’s a reason for that, even if it’s not immediately obvious to you. Trust that it will come, and if it doesn’t, move on I guess. Maybe you’ll return to the story later and it will reveal itself to you.