Writing Secrets: Whose story is it?
“So there’s this woman, see? And she has a child from a previous relationship, but the father didn’t know he had a child. The mother of the child struggled as a single mother, but now the father has discovered he has a child. So, that’s my story.”
“Oh okay, good start, but whose story is it?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
This is a fairly common discussion we hold with a great many mentees, who are considering a novel. They’ve pondered on how the love child was conceived and remained a secret for so long, the anxiety the child has been causing at school, and a great deal of detail about the husband’s relationship.
All of which is great. However … it’s not yet a story.
A story is dependent on character. It doesn’t exist in its own right. We don’t care about this scenario in isolation. We care about how it affects the character whose story we are following.
Two unrelated people have a son together. Who cares? But if a character wants something badly, and their life is thrown into chaos by discovering the existence of a child, we do.
Perhaps he’s happily married, when a woman turns up on his doorstep with the child he’s always wanted … because he and his wife have been unable to conceive. Or possibly, with the child he’s never wanted, because their lives revolve around careers and travel.
Or, she’s happily married (or perhaps, not as happily married as her husband thinks they are) when his old flame arrives on the doorstep with a brat whom she doesn’t even like …
Or, she’s surviving as a single mother when a man turns up, angrily demanding to know why he wasn’t told he has a child…
Or perhaps it’s a coming of age, and the child’s life is thrown into confusion by meeting a biological father who turned up out of the blue and wants him to go fishing and hunting.
The story changes according to who the main character or characters are, precisely because it emerges from them. Their complexities, personalities, and therefore the choices they make in life, will determine its twists and turns.
The story can’t be superimposed over the characters, like the ill-fitting cardboard dresses we hung over cut-out dolls when I was a child.
Events are not story: it’s only their effects on your protagonist which make them so.
Read Richard’s latest blog: ‘Monday Motivation: ‘I got nicer everything’ – D Trump‘