Thursday, July 21, 2011

What's Your Story Really About?

Image via Microsoft Office
What is your story really about, anyway?

This question can scare writers, particularly if we’ve finished a draft and we’re still not sure what we’re trying to say.  While there are many reasons why a story does not feel complete to us, one common problem stems from the writer's difficulty with two very risky but fundamental aspects of writing: self-discovery and self-disclosure.

Writing as Self-Discovery

Every time a writer puts fingers to keypad, she reveals part of her soul, her mind, what makes her tick.  This can be scary since most human beings don’t really have a clue what makes us tick and discovering truths about ourselves can make us uncomfortable.  

Sometimes, we’re not ready to address aspects of our own lives, so it’s hard to get our characters to do the same.

Yet self-discovery is one of most valuable reasons to write.  If we can illuminate ourselves as well as our readers, then we've more than done our job. 

Writing as Self-Disclosure

Most writers resist revealing too much about ourselves even to our closest friends, let alone to strangers who may read our work. However, even if the story is pure fiction, it can say a lot about you, what you think, and how you see the world. 

Yet self-disclosure is often what makes stories memorable.  Stories connect with readers when they touch on universal human experiences – those that show us how, despite our individual foibles and quirks, we’re not so different from each other after all.
While it’s good not to disclose too much of yourself to the reader, all writers should be willing to afford readers at least a pinprick glimpse into their souls.  If you are afraid of self-disclosure, you may be preventing your story from revealing the truths it needs to address.

Embracing the Journey

Here are five suggestions to help you on the journey of self-discovery and self-disclosure:

1. Don't begin your story with a “Big Idea.”

Most ideas have been done before anyway.  Instead, begin with some deep-seated need, question, or desire of yours.  Something unresolved from your past is always a good starting point, but it doesn’t have to be a traumatic event.  Write down ten things you remember from your childhood, for example, then pick one or two and play “what if?”

2. Let your story begin with you but take on a life of its own.

Writing fiction is different from writing biography.  You don’t have to be accurate.  You can let your imagination wander into the territory of Might Have Been.

3. Be willing to expose part of yourself to the reader.

Get your mind out of the gutter.  I don’t mean "expose" in that way.  Be willing to be vulnerable, to be taken as silly, or even to embarrass yourself.  Honesty wins over readers more than feigned super-competence.

4. Weigh the risks.

What is to be gained by revealing yourself?  What will you truly lose if reader thinks you’re nuts?  Chances are, you won’t lose anything but you’ll gain devoted followers.

5. Find a role model.

I often find my role models in fields outside of writing.  In his book, Flowers in the Dustbin, for example, James Miller describes how The Beatles refused to release a surefire hit, “How Do You Do It?” as their first single, preferring instead to be known for their own songs.  This was a gutsy decision for four lads from the sticks (e.g., Liverpool) who had just signed a recording contract – a decision that could have backfired and sent them back to the sticks with nothing.  Indeed, when their first single, “Love Me Do,” reached only # 17 in the UK charts, it looked as if they should have listened to their experienced elders.

But The Beatles’ gambit paid off when their second single, “Please Please Me,” topped the UK charts and set them on the course of reinventing music history – all because four English lads weren’t afraid to look foolish.

Determining what your story is about can be daunting, but give yourself the fearless courage to embrace both self-discovery and self-disclosure.  Only then can you determine what the truth is that both you and your readers need to know.

What do you think?  How do you know when your story has revealed itself to you?


Kristi's Book Nook said...

Peeling away the layers is tough to do. Exposure of any kind for a writer is not an easy task but we do it. We get thick skin and we reveal ourselves in the story. I know my story is writing itself when my characters take a different path then what I had originally planned. Great post Greg.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

I've had the same experience of my characters taking a different path, Kristi. It's a good sign, I think, that the story's "truth" is starting to work its way through. Thanks for posting.

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