When you write a story, it may seem to be about a character, in a particular setting, struggling to overcome a problem. But if that is all that your story is really about, it will fail.
A good story isn’t about fictional characters; it’s more concerned with the reader, with the individual who is sitting in an easy chair in some distant time in some remote location. To a great degree, you are writing to that person about his or her concerns, whether you know it or not.
Any story that doesn't address some topic greater than itself, is destined to fail.
This was brought home to me this week when I took my wife to see the movie The Fault in Our Stars. It’s a powerful movie, beautifully directed, with actors who will all be going up for Academy Awards, and the screenplay was exquisite. I haven’t read the book that it was based on yet, so I’m not sure how well the dialog reflects the author’s vision, but the movie showed something interesting.
First off, I should tell you that this is a drama about a teenage girl who is facing death, and the entire movie focuses the viewer’s attention on death.
So, is the film about a teenage girl who is dying, or is it more about the audience facing their own deaths?
Obviously, the author is talking to the audience about death—our deaths, that most unpleasant of topics.
But the author is also talking about life, how to savor it, so that death loses some of its sting.
In doing this, the author uses a technique that I discuss in my online writing classes. It’s a technique that I learned from Shakespeare, in which the author has various types of characters—romantic interests, sidekicks, guides, villains, contagonists, etc.—and each has a slightly different view on a topic.
The characters may either express their views in actions or in dialog.
What does this do? It allows the author to explore important philosophical questions by showing it from various points of view, so that we get a fuller understanding of the question—both on an emotional level and an intellectual level.
In this film in particular, we see a young woman who is facing death, and thus we garner her reflections. But we also hear from others—a mother who is terrified of losing her daughter, a boyfriend who narrowly escaped death a few months earlier, an author who watched his own daughter die, Anne Frank, and so on. We see how the fear of death shapes the lives of each of these people, and how ultimately each struggles to face oblivion.
In other words, the best of stories always focus on a thematic issue, a topic that the author deals with unflinchingly.
Stories that don’t do this, that never address issues other than the story itself, ultimately fail to satisfy. Beautiful prose and astonishing story pyrotechnics alone won’t wow an audience.
Ultimately, when you finish a story, you want to feel that you’ve accomplished something worthwhile, that you’ve learned something of value, that you’ve grown.
A good story feeds the reader, nourishing him or her with valuable insights.
Just regaling the reader with interesting factoids doesn’t satisfy. I’ve read stories by authors who try to substitute real insight with trivial philosophies, or worse. Some authors try to advance dangerous notions and pawn them off as wisdom.
Look at something like 50 Shades of Grey. Ask yourself, what do you think of it? As literary food for the soul, is it really nourishing, or could it be junkfood, or even poison?
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