Wednesday, April 13, 2011

A Tale of Two Stories: What Is Your Piece Is Really About?

One of the many maxims we learn in journalism is to not just report a story, but to get at what the story is really about. The difference between the two perspectives is the difference between a cloud and solid ground. The principle applies to all nonfiction (see The Art of Nonfiction: A Guide for Writers and Readers), and to fiction as well.

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To finish a first draft, you're basically looking to include, organize and establish the main points of a story, the key facts. As you go through the process, a more well-defined image appears. Imagine an old darkroom, where the photographer (the good ones anyway) would immerse photographic paper in developing solution and watch the image appear. In looking closely, you not only see the main subject, but the details you hadn't noticed before.

That's when you start getting at what a story is really about (see "Find Focus by Asking What the Story is Really About"). It's also when questions arise that you must follow to their logical conclusion. Ask yourself, what does what I've discovered really say about this person or character, event or plot point? 

I just had this conversation with a biographer (see How To Do Biography) as we discussed his subject. In getting at the real person he's writing about, he has to decide which details to include and which to leave out, how to organize what he has and how much of himself to inject into the piece. With the blurring of the lines among genres, this question is increasingly common. I told him he could decide based on how he answers these questions:
  • Does the fact reveal something about the subject?
  • Does it enrich the story?
  • Does it compel the reader to read on?
When deciding whether to include information, you should answer yes to all three of these questions, not just one or two.

The same principle applies to fiction. As you write and revise your work, ask yourself, what does what I've just written or the idea I've just had say about this character? Is the answer different from what I thought the person was like? If so, how so? How does this impact the other characters, and the plot? Writers often fear these questions because they fear the answers will lead them afield. But keep in mind, if you don’t answer these questions now, you'll answer them later, and that can mean lots of extra time spent running headlong to a dead end.

As you go through the vetting process, note the new reality that emerges. This is what your story is about. It may not be what you started with, but it should be richer and more original than where you began.

For more information on the blurring of the line between genres, see "Poets & Writers'" "An Interview With Creative Nonfiction Writer Hank Stuever."

1 comment:

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I think when writing a story, the first think you have to do is put yourself in the main character's shoes. I really envy people that have such a great imagination that can picture themselves doing so many things. I also believe reading different authors can empower your creativity.