It seems like everyone wants to be a writer these days, but do they all have a story worth telling? The short answer is yes. I believe that with no doubt whatsoever.
However, it may not be the story they’re actually writing. Many writers shy away from the really interesting stuff they could tell because it’s just too damn uncomfortable for them. And then even when they do pick the perfect tale, they can still screw it up in the telling.
But I believe anyone can come up with something that’s interesting enough to share with the world at large.
The first step is for the writer to decide what it is that interests them. For some people this is easy, there’s a genre, a scenario, an issue that they obsess over and they find it very easy to write with passion on that topic. Good for them.
But for others it’s much harder to write what they really want to write about. They aren’t sure if others will care, or they don’t really know how to talk about it. When you’re thinking over these things on your own it’s much easier to avoid the things you feel like avoiding.
I’ve always found if I sit down with someone and question them about what annoys or upsets them, once we get past the initial wariness and fear of ridicule, there’s always something that affects them emotionally. It doesn’t matter what that emotion is, but it’s the first step in producing a story they care about (rather than just write something they think others will like).
Not that you can’t write from a more intellectual stance. This seems an important issue so I shall construct a tale around it! That works too, but when you’re starting out, the drive and energy you will need to see a novel through to the end will come a lot easier from an emotional connection than an intellectual one.
Once the writer has found an idea for a story that holds their attention, they then have to find a way to engage the reader. That isn’t always very easy. Obviously if one person (the writer) finds the idea interesting, then chances are others will too, and many stories are written for a small but avid readership. But to make an impact with a book you really have to be looking at a broader audience.
That doesn’t mean you can’t write about steam locomotives from 1865-1890, it just means you have to make sure there’s more to it than some very detailed descriptions of differences in smokestacks. A good narrative requires dramatic conflict, and you have to know what that is and how to create it no matter what type of story you’re writing.
You should also bear in mind that just because a premise has a dramatic situation at its root, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will automatically engage the reader either.
If I told you a woman I don’t know but who lived near me died in a car crash, leaving behind two young boys who are now living with their dad, I expect you would sympathise with the situation.
You might feel bad and have a moment where you realise no matter what crazy things happen in your own life, things could be a lot worse. But these things happen in life and I expect you wouldn’t be too upset.
However, when that woman turned out to be Princess Di, people who had never met her or even seen her outside of a magazine or a television, were weeping openly in the street. They greeted the news with the kind of shock reserved for close family and friends. Why?
The difference is the relationship they had with her. A completely fictitious, imaginary relationship that the real Diana played no part in, but which genuinely caused people pain.
The first version of the car crash story, with the anonymous woman, is the kind of thing everyone has the ability to come up with. It doesn’t have to be quite so melodramatic, it could be about a neighbour who borrowed a lawnmower and then pretended he hadn’t, or an IT person on the phone telling you about her life in India. It could be real or entirely made up, but something about it strikes a chord with you. The problem is it doesn’t make more than a passing impression on anyone you tell.
This is the point most aspiring writers can get to without too much trouble, but then they can’t see why other people aren’t responding to their story. They don’t know what’s missing.
Taking that idea and converting it into the kind of story that affects people, the way the Princess Di story did, is the hard part. But it can be done, by anyone.
If you took Diana and the Royal Family out of that story and kept all the ingredients—the mistress, the affairs, the car chases, the battle in the media—could a gripping tale still be fashioned from those elements? I would say yes, most definitely. So it isn’t just the famous name. It’s being aware of all the twists and turns, the conflict and the stakes, that lead up to the tragic conclusion. It’s about having an imaginary relationship with the MC.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you have to make the MC likeable or give her a huge amount of backstory so people know all about her. It does mean you have to be on the journey as it happens. You have to experience it with her. And when it’s your story that you’ve pulled out of your own view of the world (or at least I hope that’s what you’ve done), going in deep can sometimes be a little uncomfortable. Although, when it starts getting painful, chances are you’re on the right path.
Of course, it’s much easier looking at a famous story and working backwards, you already know the public bought into it, so the kind of doubts you might have about your own book aren’t in play. But the more personal you make it, the more others will be drawn to it. That leap from personal interest to public interest is possible for any kind of story.
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The A to Z Challenge begins next month, so 26 posts in 30 days. Wonder what I'll write about...