What Is Your Story About?


Photo credit: Stéfan

“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.

As we get clearer on what we’re writing about, the work becomes elegant and efficient. It becomes easier to chip away the superfluous, to select and refine the most potent details, to ultimately shape the narrative so that all its elements coalesce into a unified whole.

“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?

What It Really Means To Write What You Know

  It’s a myth that writers write what they know. We write what it is that we need to know. ~ Marcie Hershman “Write what you know” is one of the most misunderstood mantras. And one of the most limiting rules to write by. Here’s how writing what we know can limit us: We write…

Beyond Your First Draft: The Drama of Desire

If we have no desire we will die; if we have no conflict we will go to sleep. ~Jiddhu Krishnamurti Desire is the heartbeat of your story or novel. It’s what keeps readers emotionally invested scene by scene, sentence by sentence. That’s why we need to resist leaning on exposition – scenes where characters are…

Thinking of Boston. And You.

  I’d been planning to publish a post this week about desire. About how, even when someone does something terrible beyond our ken, we can still understand, connect with, even sympathize with the desire behind it. Then bombs detonated during what should’ve been a celebratory marathon in Boston. A beaming 8-year old boy hugged his…

Beyond Your First Draft: Exploring Point of View

Of all the things I see tripping writers up, point of view is the most persistent. Point of view is one of the most important narrative choices you’ll make. It’s the soul of your story. And it’s one of the organizing elements that help you make other essential story decisions. But it’s often misunderstood and…

Writing Fearlessly: An Exercise in Letting Go

Years ago, a fellow writer described one of my stories as “polished.” She meant this as a compliment of sorts. I’d labored over every word, after all, chiseling each sentence down to a sparkle. But I couldn’t help feeling that, for all its polish, my story lacked emotional depth. By way of “polish” I had…

How to Brainstorm Writing Ideas

How do you nudge your way into a story? Do you start with a childhood memory? A vintage photograph? An overheard conversation? We all have our own way in. And our creative processes are as singular as fingerprints. My friend and writer, Sarah Noack describes the gateway to her stories like this: “I do horoscopes…

Should You Outline Before You Write?

Should I outline my novel/memoir/story before I write it? Or should I just wing it, flying blind? I get this question a lot from writers I work with. And while my gut response is, “Please, don’t outline first,” I know that every writer’s process is, and must be, self designed. For some of us, charting…

When Your Writing Is Criticized: How to Stay Resilient

If you’ve been sharing your writing for any length of time, you’ve probably encountered criticism that makes you want to slink away and never write again. Maybe you prefer to keep that novel tucked away in deep storage. Or write your memoir in secret, for your eyes only. I’ve been there. Many times. My first…

How To Stop Putting Off Writing

 Tell me if this sounds familiar. You hit a snag in your story. Maybe you’re clueless about what to write next. Or you’re wrangling a sentence into some sort of coherence. Then rather than work through it, you check out what’s happening on Facebook. Before you know it, you’re down the rabbit hole of TED…