I’ve been involved in several things lately.
Regardless of all that is going on, I will try to relax and have fun, plus take a lot of pictures.
Once again, I have written enough of a new book to ask why I’m doing this.
That is, what’s the “why” of my story? What is it that I want readers to learn, or find out, or realize, or to continue to think about after they’ve finished the book? My high school English teachers would have called it identifying the “motif” or the “theme” of what I have written. It’s the “message” of the book.
Accomplishing it is not as easy as it sounds and it takes work to do it right. Some stories naturally progress from beginning to end with the message as clear as a bell; they’re called Fairy Tales. I’ve written before what I went through to find The King of Trash a coherent, congruent ending that contained the message that I wanted, and I’m hoping that my new book won’t be that hard.
I always get excited when I start creating a new story: plot, movement, action, location, history, dialogue, characters, context, conflict, drama, and all the things that show what’s happening and who it’s happening to. The story is the ride I want to experience so I know you’ll like experiencing it, too. I also like getting the story out from beginning to end before I step back to see if I’ve accomplished what I wanted. (I never do; I’m still an incessant rewriter. On the other hand, I find it easier to change and enhance a story than to begin over.)
When I do step back, I can see the various strengths and weaknesses of the story and make a decision about how to reconfigure the story to play to its strengths. The strengths should indicate the message that I’ve targeted. If it does, I need then to make it play from the beginning of the story to the end. If the strength of the story doesn’t really reflect my message, maybe my story doesn’t fit the message. If so, there’s then a decision to be made about whether I should tell a different story, or I should look for a different message.
Let’s assume that I’m happy with the message. I can then ask if my characters behave in the way that build that message. In particular, do the characters change in such ways that they demonstrate the validity of the message? Do the characters “prove” the message?
Once I figure that out, I can address the mechanics. Are the changes consistent with the plot? Do I show my main character changing by putting them in situations that cause them to change? Do I present them options of how to change so that they choose the one that fits? Do I let them crash and burn as they’re learning what fits? Do I portray the supporting cast as exerting the right pressures on the main character to convince them that he or she must change?
I have a hundred and fifty pages or so to show what my characters do when exposed to various situations, are put under different pressures, or react to other characters. Best of all, I’ve got lots of room to show the reasons for the characters’ doing what they do. I cannot leave things to chance. I shouldn’t expect a message to “accidentally” work itself out.
A few centuries of writers have formalized the idea of character change and how it centers the message in a story, but it’s still a surprise to me that I can write fifty or seventy thousand words of a great story and yet find that it’s not entirely clear that the story reflects what I thought was my message.
Alright, I can hear my audience going “Dummy! Why don’t you map out the delivery of your message before you start writing all those words?”
I accept that. But, first, in my mind, I knew the message that was being promoted and when – I just may not have written it down in the right places; and, second, I like giving my characters the freedom to change as the story goes along, and to say things that I hadn’t thought of. I like to start a story and see where it takes me. I may see a “message” developing that makes a stronger statement than what I had planned. It’s already happened early in this story and has made an incredible difference in the plot. There’s a definite interplay between the story I wrote and the message I’m trying convey.
What can I do to help myself out?
Write down the questions that my high school English teachers were asking fifty years ago and then honestly answer them.
- What’s the message of the book?
- How is that message revealed through the characters? No matter what, the message has to be driven by the characters.
- Is that message strongly conveyed by how the main character changes?
- Where are the words that show a character behaving in a certain way; where are the words that show them changing because of such things as conflict, accident, confrontation, crisis, introspection, a magic ring, or epiphany (no miracles allowed unless there really was one); where are the words that show them behaving in a different way, so that the readers know that the character has changed, and that the change they made confirms my message?
- What places in the story show a character gradually changing so that the reader is drawn along with what’s happening and, hopefully, aligns with the change?
There are more questions that need to be asked and I will ask them as I’m doing revisions. My main point is that, in the end, the words have to be in the story. I can be direct, indirect, simple or complex; I can use metaphors or imagery; I can do all sorts of things to carry out the building of a theme or a motif. But I still am the author. Nobody can read my mind. If I want the readers to get something out of a story, I have to put the words in there for them to find it.
In the summer of 1980, Larry McMurtry, Pulitzer-winning author of Lonesome Dove, was sitting in the Dairy Queen in Archer City, Texas, reading an essay by Walter Benjamin, early 20th century German philosopher, cultural critic, and essayist. It was a moment of epiphany, I guess, because McMurtry would later write a book called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, but he wouldn’t get around to it for about twenty years.
The subject of the essay was whether “storytelling” as a medium for conveying culture was disappearing, and McMurtry found it most interesting that he was sitting in a Dairy Queen as he read it. Dairy Queens, found in most little towns in Texas, represented a gathering place for local people who come and sit, for one reason or the other, and talk to each other. This communal watering hole, in McMurtry’s mind, represented a substitute for the back porches, family kitchens, or town square benches where people used to sit around, resting from the day, recalling people or events in the family’s or the community’s historical consciousness and sharing them in the form of memories, recollections, or full-blown stories.
This is usually how historians consider American folklore was handed down from one generation to another.
Perhaps true in the past, I’m not sure we currently have any equivalent to the back porches, kitchens, benches, or even the Dairy Queens, that serve as the vehicle for the younger generation learning about the older generation, if for no other reason than back porches (and front porches) are no longer included in modern house architecture. Or, maybe that extended families are no longer much co-located and don’t gather just to visit.
Whatever the reason, it’s worth my asking how much my oldest grandson knows about me, my father and mother, or my ancestors farther up my family tree.
Which, of course, begs the question: how much do I know about the people, places and events of my own family tree?
I’ve been thinking about this is because of the historical fiction novel I’m working on that’s centered around World War II, having taken my dad’s experience as a starting point for my story. My dad kept a list of when and where he was in Europe, from the time he left for boot camp until he returned three years later, and I am using it as a general progression of the novel.
I am kicking myself repeatedly for never asking him about it. It’s true that he didn’t volunteer anything, consistent with other veterans, and maybe he wouldn’t have even with direct questioning, but I wish I would have tried. We even lived a block from a Dairy Queen. I’m not sure my dad ever stepped inside the place, but maybe if I had forced him into a booth and plied him with chocolate malts, I would have gotten something.
As much as I can recall, my mom and dad and their families didn’t do much gathering and didn’t produce a lot of family stories; Only when perusing old photographs did my mom pass on much historical information. I can remember one instance where most of the brothers and sisters (my dad was the oldest of nine) gathered in the back screened-in porch of my grandparent’s house in Oklahoma, sat around on the floor, and spent an hour or so just visiting. I want to say that I didn’t attend because children were not invited but it was probably more a problem of there being no room.
Did they share family stories? Did they go through memories of people they’d known, or grown up with, or remember what their ancestors did when they were all farmers or such? Or, in my wish, did my dad and my two uncles, at least, talk about what they did in Europe or the Pacific during the war?
I don’t know. All I remember is that the evening did not end well, being as I was caught trying to smoke tobacco in a toy pipe, something that broke my mother’s heart.
But that’s a story that I’ve never told and I doubt that my oldest grandson will ever hear.
Don Willerton has been a reader all his life and yearns to write words like the authors he has read. He's working hard at it and invites others to share their experiences.