Monday Motivation: What story’s really all about
I continue to think of parallels between life and the imaginary worlds of all our fictions. There have to be these equivalences, because otherwise fiction wouldn’t resonate with us; we wouldn’t feel our hearts thump as we read about (or watch on film or television) our hero’s trials and challenges.
So even the most outlandish tale of science fiction must relate directly to concerns and priorities in our very human lives.
Here’s another thought in this direction:
We say that fictions are built around a character who wants something. The detective who wants to set right what has been upset, to restore justice to the world. The woman who wants, very simply, to smoke a cigarette.* The young man who, believing himself to be a psychopath, wants to prove it by murdering his girlfriend. ** The bachelor who wants ardently to win the heart of the girl with the elfin face in the accounts department. The aspirant bank robbers who want to break into the vault of the largest bank in New York City.
And so on and so forth. That hunger for something is a central conceit of all story.
So my question is: Why?
And the answer is, well, that’s equally true of life.
In life, the problem we’re constantly confronted with is the always evolving challenge of getting what we want. I want a new car. I want my child to succeed at school. I want a reliable computer. I want acknowledgement by my peers. I want to write a best seller.
Some of these problems are trivial, of course. Unless you’re mired in poverty, getting a new car is never an insurmountable problem. Finding a reliable computer in the 21st century is also a problem simply solved.
But many problems are more complicated than this, and require a more intricate series of manoeuvres. Wanting your child to succeed at school, for instance, can, as many parents will attest, not something totally within your control. The boy might be, well, let’s, charitably, call him slow. In the end we settle with a revised goal: let him be the best he can be, we say.
Finding the right partner in the eternal dance of love is also, as almost everyone on earth can testify, a tricky business.
Problems can be relatively simple, or relatively complex. The more complex they are, the more difficult they are to solve.
And the really big problems are the ones that we don’t often consider, because they seem to be intractable, resisting the sort of analysis we apply to lesser problems.
What makes me happy, is one such question. Another might be: What does it take to be good?
There is, of course, an assumption that in satisfying all our other wants, we will be happy. If I make many millions, and build that grand house I’ve always dreamed of, and marry the girl of my dreams, and buy the Lamborghini, I’m sure I’ll be happy.
So what fiction does is take these questions and it turn them into stories. At one end of the spectrum, showing how the gang of bank robbers breaks into the vault and steals the money, can be a passingly entertaining story. Think Oceans 11.
The story of how the ardent young man wins the heart of the beauty in the accounts department (and infinite variations on this theme) has formed the basis of tens of thousands of romances.
At the top end of the spectrum are those books that set out to answer the most difficult of questions: What makes this character happy?
So when you’re setting out to write a compelling story that’ll engage the imaginations of your readers, you don’t have to deploy a complex set of rules devised by writing theorists.
All you have to do is think about what you have wanted in your life… Or what you might have wanted… And of all the difficulties you encountered on your way to getting it. That’s what story’s all about.
* The subject of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story Thank You for the Light.
** The subject of the hugely intriguing Netflix series, The End of the F***ing World. (Their asterisks, not mine.)
Read Jo-Anne’s latest blog ‘Writing Secrets: We are what we notice’
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