What does it mean to “know the story you want to tell” and how does it help us as writers?
It’s not about plot and characters. It’s so much more than that and I’ve found real depth and writing satisfaction from my work when I’ve actually known the story I want to tell. Here’s how and why…
Getting to grips with your own personal narrative will do wonders for your writing. It will show you what you have been through, what it means, and why it may tie into a story you want to tell.
The saying goes that you should “write what you know”, and I believe this to be true because we can only ever truly and authenticity write what we know. There is gold in the emotions and experiences that we’ve had firsthand.
This doesn’t mean that you should write about senior school or that boy who didn’t like you. It means you should tap into your emotions and experiences to find themes and genre and stories and messages in your own life that you want to weave into other narratives. And when you do, the story is more powerful.
Even if the messages are very hidden, you will know they’re there and it will breathe life into the story.
Some ideas of my personal narrative that has been weaved into my stories:
- Struggle for identity
- Struggle for belonging
- Creative struggles
- Crisis of Self
- Resilience, failure, perseverance
Depth of character
When you know your personal narrative, it will likely give you ideas on the kind of characters and character experiences you want them to have. This is perfect. But depth of character is more than just that. It’s a whole backstory and detail for your character that may not make it into the story but will still influence what they do, how they speak, how they act, and who they are.
Knowing these things about your character helps you to know them. To really know them. They go from a flat character who’s just a girl with long black hair who wants to a gold medal-winning athlete; to instead being a girl who was raised in an old-school household where girls are meant to do feminine things, and so athleticism is not a career that’s allowed. Where her mom had a hidden dream of being a firefighter but never got to pursue it.
Knowing these things then helps you to realise what this character’s dream really means to her and those around her. How suddenly you can now see her mom jumping to support her in the end and it adds real emotion to it because there’s an actual reason why.
Knowing your character to depths that never make it into the story are crucial to knowing the story you’re telling. And that will enrich the narrative, give birth to new ideas, and have you writing while crying because you care about this character as if they’re a real person.
Story and theme
It’s not enough to have a good story idea. Millions of people come up with great ideas for books every day (although most will never write them). What sets aside a great book, or a book that sits with the reader long after they’re done reading, is a book that’s not just plot and narrative but a real story.
You see, plot/narrative is different to story. As Pixar’s writers said, the plot of Monsters Inc is two monsters harbouring a human child and trying to get her back home before she jeopardises their world. But the story is something else entirely…
The story is where the meaning is. The story is about a man becoming like a father to a child, and choosing that child over his own safety and personal pursuits. It’s about choosing connection and love and responsibility and protection of a child over success, fame, and showmanship which used to be what Sully cared about.
So tell me, which is better? The basic plot which could be done by anyone? Or the deeper meaning and story that’s there alongside it?
The story gives your novel substance. It is perhaps more important to know the story and meanings over the plot. The story’s depth will give you the plot points later. But as with this example, the story is something that can be placed into any genre or setting. This could be a man’s journey of growth instead of a monster’s, because it doesn’t matter.
What matters is the meaning and the message they wanted to convey – which was wrapped in a children’s film about monsters, how awesome is that? One of the creators said that he was becoming a father at the time, and this helped to develop the narrative. See, it came from his personal narrative as mentioned before.
Knowing your personal narrative, the depth of your characters, and the story/message will give your story substance, something of which not many novels have. Substance, when done right, will be what makes a reader connect with the story, emotionally feel its message, and want to come back to it again and again.
And that is the power of actually knowing the story you want to tell.
Stories fall flat or go unfinished when we’re writing, but we have no real idea of the essence of the story we actually want to tell. We’re writing about a girl pirate but why? What does it actually mean? Why are you telling this story? Why does it need to be told? What does the reader get from it?
Not all stories need to change the world or make you think, but all stories need, well, substance and that comes from knowing what your story is about underneath the narrative.
Happy writing, guys.