Posted by Timothy Blomquist, CNF Reader for issue 6.1
It’s the first question someone asks when you tell them you’re writing a story. Your answer may vary—maybe it’s a story about a happy time in your life, or a place from your childhood that you remember fondly. Or maybe it’s about something darker—a relative who passed, or a friend, or some other person or thing taken from you too soon. Maybe you’re writing about something in between happiness and despair, something seemingly random that’s been nagging at you for some time, for reasons you can’t really explain. Therein lies the real question: What are you really writing about?
Perhaps this is an unnecessarily long-winded introduction to the concept of subtext (with which, as a writer or reader, you are more than likely familiar), but it’s a concept that’s easy to forget in the heat of the moment. When a story you’ve been thinking about for a long time begins to pour out of you and you’re frantically trying to scribble it out on paper, are you really thinking to yourself, “Hmm…this is good, but what’s the ‘underlying and distinct theme’ in this piece of writing?” No. Of course not. But you may be wondering, “Why am I writing this? What about this stands out to me?”
This sort of questioning is normal, and, fortunately, it’s also the key to writing something “good.” Unfortunately, however, that’s only the first half—the second half is answering that question. Take a look at your piece. Why are you writing it? To be blunt, do you actually give a shit about what you’re writing? It’s likely that you do (something is very, very wrong if you don’t), but why should anyone else? That’s why we have subtext—to find something for ourselves in the experiences of others. What is the reader going to take away from your story, besides just reading about the events therein? What are you trying to say without actually saying it?
Now, take a look at your piece again, the one about that happy place in your childhood. What’s your point? Is it just a nostalgic romp through your childhood solely for the purpose of expressing that you were happy when you were young? Or is it about how pleasant memories can change dramatically with the inevitable passage of time, how looking back on childhood with newfound life experience and a certain degree of maturity can influence your view of the past? Now think of the story about your dead loved one(s)—everyone has that story. What are you trying to get across? It has to be more than “My [loved one] died and it was sad.” Of course it was, but here you are, writing about it, so there’s more to it than that—there’s always more to it than that. Was it your first brush with mortality? Did the distance allow you to look back on their lives with more freedom, giving you a greater understanding of them than you ever could have possibly achieved when they were alive? Did you find that they were, in many ways, someone you never knew? For any story, you need to ask yourself questions like these.
If there’s a story gestating in the back of your mind and you have no idea why, find out. There’s a reason. Write it all out, revise it, share it, get as much feedback as you can, but be sure to ask yourself the right questions. Be sure to identify what your story is really about, which universal concept you’re working with—the thing that draws readers to every great story. Find out why you really give a shit. It may take time (it usually will), and it may be frustrating (it definitely will), but you’ll come out of the process with a stronger core in a better story, and you’ll be a better writer for it.
Some questions to ask yourself while writing:
- Do I care about this?
- Why do I care about this?
- What did I learn from this experience, if anything?
- How did this experience change me, if at all?
- What/How much am I saying through action?
- Through words?
- What about this story is drawing me to it?