Friday, March 5, 2010

What Is Your Story About?

by Scott Rhoades

What do you say when somebody asks what your story is about? Chances are, if you're like most of us, you give a brief synopsis of the plot. But is that really what your story is about?

A story is about people. Chances are you mention your main character and maybe your antagonist when you tell people what your story is about, but you probably focus on what they do. It's OK, in a summary, you probably have to focus on events.

But as you write, you have to remember that the story is about the reactions of your characters to the events. There should be nothing in your story that is not about the people. The coolest event, the most vivid description, the funniest words--none of that matters if they have no effect on your characters.

Every scene is about your protagonist trying to accomplish a goal, and being foiled by the antagonist. The antagonist, on the other hand, isn't getting in the way just to be a moustache-twirling villain. The antagonist has his own goals that just happen to run counter to those of the protagonist. It's not that the bad guy is evil, necessarily. It's just that he either wants the same thing the protagonist wants only he wants it first, or he wants something that's the opposite of what the main character wants. In the antagonist's mind, it's the protagonist who's the villain. This creates conflict, and conflict makes story because conflict causes the characters to react.

And it's those reactions that the story is about. It's all about the characters.

This is why some of the common problems in fiction are problems. Let's look at a couple.

Weak Opening

If you start your story with the weather, even if it's the best description of weather ever written, so real and so vivid that the reader can feel the raindrops bouncing off the page and splashing on his own face, the opening might fail to hook the reader.

Why? You know what I'm going to say. The character is absent. Even if the character is watching the rain and reacting to it, the opening might fall flat--unless the rain puts the character in peril and the description is crafted thoroughly from that character's point of view in a way that makes us feel the character's reaction, preferably a reaction where we feel that there's real danger, an intriguing problem. Weather can affect a story, but only by affecting a character. Without the character's reaction, there's no story in the weather.

This is also why opening with dialogue often doesn't work. We don't know the people yet, so we don't know why we should care about whoever is saying something.

Same thing if you start with the character waking. There's no reason to care yet, and waking up is normally not very perilous or mysterious, so it doesn't hook the reader.

Point of View Filters

"Johnny felt upset. He saw Jane walk around the corner with Tommy."

There's a lot wrong with this. It tells us what Johnny is doing, but it doesn't show us. We all get tired of the show-don't-tell cliche. Sometimes you just want to get to the important stuff, so you summarize. Summary is always telling, and sometimes it's necessary.

But why is showing better than telling? When you tell, like I did in the example, you take away the characters. Yes, it's true that there are three characters mentioned in those two sentences, but the characters are still absent, because you're being told about them instead of watching them.

Anytime you run across a "filter" verb as you revise, look at it closely and make sure you're getting what you need out of it. A filter is a verb that pulls you out of the characters point of view. These are verbs that tell you what the character is doing rather than letting you experience them. They include words like saw, heard, imagined, and probably the worst of all, felt.

If you are firmly in the character's point of view--where you want to be if you want to engage the reader by letting her live vicariously through your character--these filter verbs pull the reader away and put unwanted distance between her and the character.

If you tell me that Johnny felt sad, I can't experience it. If you show Johnny being sad from within him, by showing the symptoms of sadness, we'll feel it more deeply and we'll care more.

Likewise, if you tell us what he saw, we don't see it. If we're firmly within Johnny's POV, then everything described in the story is seen through his eyes. "Jane walked around the corner with Tommy" means that Johnny saw it. Why add the extra layer, the filter, by telling us he saw it when everything you describe is already what he sees? By putting in the filter saw, you take Johnny out of the real action, and you set yourself up for a weak description of what he's seeing.

If your story is about the characters, then everything that happens in the story is really about your character's reaction to events. He might walk into a crowded room, but he's not going to see everything. He's only going to see the things that cause him to react as he tries to accomplish his goal for the scene. The scene is not about all the stuff that is happening in the crowded room. It's about the character's reaction to the things in that room that help him or hinder him in his quest to achieve the goal of the scene, and preferably the things that create conflict by keeping him from his goal.

One of the problems we run into is that our initial story idea is often about a situation, so we think the story is about that situation. We create characters to fit the situation we want to write about. But once the story begins, it's really about the characters and how they react to the situation. If you want to engage a reader, the story is about the people, not the situation the people find themselves in.

If you remember that as you write and revise, you'll make sure that every word applies to the character and his motivations and reactions. And then you'll have an interesting story.


Jen said...

Thank you very much for this. It's all stuff I have heard before but obviously needed to hear again and it motivated me to look at my piece in a different light when I revise it. Thanks.

Cathy Witbeck said...

THank you for the information on verb filters. I have never heard it put that way and it makes so much sense.