“So what are your stories about?” someone at a party recently asked.
“Hmmm,” I said, mentally scanning my most recent collection, grasping for a cogent response. “Loss. Regret. Grief. Disillusionment. It’s hard to explain. I actually have no idea what my stories are about.”
If you’re anything like me, you routinely trip over this question. It’s challenging to understand, let alone, articulate what we’re writing about.
To sum up a story or book in terms of its aboutness feels reductive and abstract, a hollow representation at best.
So much of what our work’s about is ineffable, beneath the surface.
It’s felt, rather than explained. It goes far deeper than plot. It’s the story inside the story.
Yet if we don’t get a handle on what our story’s about, we often end up revising in circles, spinning out in perpetual chaos of exploratory scenes and characters without ever finding our anchor.
“What is your story about?” is a worthy question. But it isn’t best answered after the work is done. It needs to be contemplated and explored during each stage of the drafting process.
What’s the essential question your narrative asks?
We writers are an introspective lot. We deal with essential questions, complexities or obsessions that fascinate us over the course of our lifetime. Maybe we’re forever trying to understand the impact our parents’ divorce has had on us. Or we’re trying to find reconciliation with a dead sibling. Maybe we’re seeking redemption from a shameful adolescence.
We all have our own deeply embedded obsessions, and these obsessions haunt us throughout our lives. Even if we try to suppress them, even if we try to write against those obsessions, they keep bobbing to the surface. They refuse to let us go.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, everything we write revolves around our essential questions.
Questions about ourselves, about our past, our life experiences, about people we love and fear, about the world. Questions that demand to be looked at over and over again, ever more deeply, from different angles.
This evolving question becomes the heart of your story, it’s aboutness.
I love how Native American storytelling is described as a wheel. If you think of the heart of your story, or the question it invites, as the hub of the wheel, you move around the circumference, then down one of the spokes to touch the hub, then back to the circumference. Each time, you’re touching the hub again and again from different points. And your reader participates until every spoke leads to the hub. Until the wheel, or the story is whole.
All the spokes move outward, but they all touch back to the hub, the essential question, which is what your story is ultimately about.
Why does this story matter to you?
Explore your relationship to your material. What are you trying to understand or come to terms with through your characters?
Our characters can be surrogates for the private, hidden aspects of ourselves – the scared, courageous, brazen, broken, heroic parts – all those hidden aspects that might go unexpressed in our public life.
The answers are not as important as the questions themselves.
You don’t need to have the answers at the outset. In fact, it’s better that you don’t. Just keep these questions in mind as you move through every stage of revision.
It’s the anxiety of inquiry that drives your narrative forward. You – or your character through you – is moving steadily towards some sort of truth, wisdom, or self knowledge. The exhilarating bond between writer and reader happens when both seem to arrive at that truth together.
Try this exercise
Go through a draft of something you’ve been working on, but haven’t nailed yet. As you read through your material, mark the scenes, moments, sentences – anywhere you feel the most emotional pull.
How did you feel while you were reading those passages? Do you remember how you felt when you originally wrote them?
Read them again, apart from the entire work. Look for emotional footprints. Do you see a pattern emerge?