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Stories Without Heart

You will probably have read plenty of quotes along the line of ‘If you want to be a writer, you have to write.’ Right?

Stephen King said something of the sort and many others did too. The basic idea is that dreaming about being a writer is one thing, but actually doing it is something else. Sitting down in a chair and writing, though it can lead to a few problems, is far better than doing nothing at all. But there are things to watch out for on that route.

Budding authors are full of creative ideas and imaginings. As an editor and publisher, I have had my fair share of conversations which consist of the wannabe author launching into great detail about his or her latest project, beginning with the first chapter and informing me with ongoing vigour about ‘what happens next’, on and on, trying to paint a picture for me which they can clearly see unfolding and which fills them with excitement, but which of course I would have to read the novel to see myself. Writers are usually filled with passion about the books they are writing, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I have learned not to be surprised, though, when I learn either that a) nothing or very little is actually put down on paper or typed into a computer or b) the writer has written hundreds of thousands of words of essentially aimless material. Years pass, and stories either grow dim or just grow, like a kind of seaweed, until they choke themselves.

Of course, to be a writer, you must write. The writer who talks but doesn’t write is in a worse situation than the one who writes and writes and writes to no constructive end. But both would be helped enormously if they were able to recognise one thing:

Successful stories are about something.

That sounds too obvious, but what I mean is that they are about more than just a series of events, however elaborate, however colourful, however dramatic those things might be. We would be getting closer to the mark if we said that good stories were about a set of characters, but even that doesn’t quite capture what I’m trying to say.

A novel usually features a protagonist and a group of other quasi-people, going through a sequence of events until some kind of resolution or finale is reached. When I ask ‘What is the story about?’ I usually get an attempted rendition of that sequence. On one level of course a story is ‘about’ what happens in it. But to really pull a story together and to make it stand out from the crowd (and believe me, if you haven’t already realised it, today’s marketplace is probably more crowded with stories and attempted stories than at any other time in history) it needs to be about something: love, death, the triumph of the will over adversity, the foibles of humanity, the fact that pride always comes before a fall - these and many more simple and complex statements are things which must form a story’s foundation for it to be successful.

Pride and Prejudice is about human emotions and how people interact; Star Wars is about faith and power; Hamlet is about human psychology and despair. Great works of fiction have a core, around which the mechanics of a story are constructed: the Bennett family’s economic position and how Elizabeth is at first repelled by and then attracted toward Darcy in Pride and Prejudice are mechanics which serve to illustrate the story’s central message; Luke Skywalker’s quest to follow and then find the truth about his father leads him into a series of adventures, but these are episodes on the way to his confrontation with and saving of his father’s soul; Hamlet is ousted from his position in Elsinore and suffers from deep melancholy magnified by revelations from his murdered father’s ghost, but the events of the play are tools through which Shakespeare communicates something deeper and beyond words.

By all means sit down and write, rather than talk about writing. But to construct a really powerful story which will have a lasting impact, spend some time working out what it is you want to say before you waste your talents on scene after scene which lead nowhere because they don’t have a heart.


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