Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Quest for Story: #8 -- What Do You Mean by That?

(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Pond Bridge)

(This is post number eight in a ten-part quest to define "a good story" -- the kickoff of this quest is HERE)

It's been a while since our last stop on the quest -- time pressures forced me off schedule last week, and I took part in Alex's 'Genre' blogfest yesterday.

So to catch up, let's review the quest so far: In the first parts, I defined the three large elements that I believe make up a good story:  Character, Plot, and Voice.  I've also touched on a story's beginning (the introduction of the character and the onset of the plot), discussed the importance of conflict (tests and strengthens the character and forms the whole core of the plot), mentioned setting (illustrates where the plot takes place, and acts as a component that establishes and frames the character), and last time, talked about maintaining the middle (the center-point of the plot, where the character faces a increasingly difficult series of mini-crises in their climb towards the finish).

We only have three more stops on this quest, and I think after seeing 'The Beginning' and 'The Middle', you can probably guess what one of them is going to be. 

But let's save that one for its appropriate spot....

Instead, today I want to hit an element that grows out of a simple question:  What is the story about? 

Because a good story has this:


A story's meaning is often not just a single thing, and in a "good story" there are usually several layers.  There's the story's subject, probably some recurring motifs, one or more underlying themes, and perhaps even -- if the author wants to drive home a practical point for the reader to learn from -- a moral.

A compelling plot can hold us riveted, complex and engaging characters can be wonderfully entertaining, and an author's voice can be so silky smooth that we simply lose ourselves in it, but for a truly 'good story,' these elements have to do a little more.  They need to work together to give us something deeper; something that resonates within us and makes us think of that story long after we've finished reading the words.

But here's the tricky part -- often it's out of the author's hands. 

Yes, a writer can be concrete as hell about the subject ("War! Uhhnn! What is it good for?"); intentionally plant some recurring motifs which relate to the subject (death; destroyed buildings; recurring losses of loved ones; repeated bravery in the face of certain death); sculpt the plot to enhance a specific theme ("there are no real winners in war"); and maybe even go so far as to try and give a clear moral ("make peace, not war!"). 

But then a given reader -- who may or may not see all of the elements the author consciously inserted -- can read the story and end up taking their OWN meaning away from it ("Love conquers all!").

Like effective visual arts, compelling creative writing impacts each person differently. A good story requires that each reader brings a little of themselves to it, and in return, each reader gets a little something unique out of it.  The story resonates within them in a special way based on each reader's individual emotions and life experiences.

This is OK, and even desirable, I think. 

A story may begin with the elements of meaning that a skilled author inserted (subject, motif, theme, and moral), but within the reader the story grows to be more than what the writer intended.  A synergistic ignition of emotion happens within the heart and mind of the reader, and they pull a deeper meaning out of it.

And this magical bridging of the gap between what the author intended and what the reader takes away can elevate a piece of fiction into a 'good story'.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Yes, once it's out there, it's out of our control. Some readers will see things we never even imagined. Of course, for those of us who don't write super deep, that might be a good thing.

Suze said...

Chris, I'm working on a query letter this morning -- my 12th version -- and the process has been on in which I have become quite entangled, sometimes with what seems like no way through the dark night. Believe it or not, this post has helped me with the one thing over which I have no control: what happens after I let go.

Thanks for this excellent series.

D.G. Hudson said...

Fresh eyes can see between the lines sometimes. When we see a story, free from the creator's angst of being the author, we can see themes, and hidden connections.

Good points, Chris. Liked Alex's comment too.

Liesel K Hill said...

Great post! I think it's important that the author doesn't try to force the theme too much. Sometimes, we should just let the reader discover their own. I'm not against putting themes in--I do it myself all the time--but just don't force it down the reader's throat. Even if the theme is one thing to the author, it may be something else entirely to the reader! Well said! :D

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

One of the English teachers my hubby and I had in high school was very emphatic about finding hidden meanings in every book we read. I found it challenging and interesting, but my husband absolutely hated it. I honestly think that has a lot to do with how little fiction he's read since then.

Mark Koopmans said...

Hey Chris,

Yeah, I *hate* being hit over the head with a story's meaning.. for me reading is a fun escape and I hate being "told" something... why not show me instead :)

Chris Fries said...

@Alex: Too funny! And too true. ;^)

@Suze: Awww, thanks, Suze. I'm so happy that something I wrote was able to help, and I wish you tremendous querying success! But I KNOW you're not going to have any problems getting some nibbles on your query. ;^) Much luck!

@D.G.: Thanks! And I always appreciate fresh eyes -- I don't know if I'll ever be completely angst-less when it comes to reading my own stuff.

@Liesel: Thank you very much! And I agree -- forcing things never works. And sometimes a rock can be just a rock -- not EVERYTHING has to have hidden meaning, lol!

@Susan: That's too bad -- I hope he eventually comes around. There's nothing like just losing yourself in a good story. If fiction is written well, I find myself in the moment and being swept along with it, and that's how I want it. The 'meaning' stuff creeps in on me more after I've finished something, and then I start mulling it over. That's a good sign for me -- if I read it and moved on without another thought, it wasn't really a 'good story'.

@Mark: Absolutely! I just said almost the same thing in my reply to Susan above, LOL! Great minds, and all that...

.jessica. said...

What's that quote, the writer is the instrument but it's the reader who pulls the bow across the strings? (Well... something much more well-phrased than that, but you get the idea.) :) It's always such a good reminder that the meaning you intend for your stories is not always the meaning that the reader will take away - but the point is that you've written a story in such a way that there IS meaning. Depth is good.

Nicole said...

Love your points about writing in layers to maximize the meaning, and striving for a deep, lasting resonance with readers. That's one of the things I love most about great books - some of my favorite life lessons have come from books. :)

Chris Fries said...

@Jes: You're right, Jes. Depth is good! And the reader is required to pull that bow.

@Nicole: Thanks! And me, too. ;^)

M Pax said...

It's amazing sometimes what someone reads into a story. It is magical.

Gina said...

I think meaning is something not only out of our control, but something most of the times we don't think about. When I write a story I think of the characters, the plot, the symbols that I'll use (because I looove symbols) but the meaning is something I don't question. In my mind I'm telling the story of the character and nothing else. Then someone comes, reads it, and sees a whole subtext I didn't even realize was there! Our subconscious is in charge of the subtext and most of the times the author is blind to it.

Great post!

Simon Kewin said...

Great post. I love the way readers create their own interpretations of a story and ascribe their own meanings to it.

Suze said...

Unrelated to post: I think it's really cool how you've posted commentary of such substance over at WRiTE Club for the duration of the bouts. Very generous of you. It'd be a tragedy if that random roll doesn't feature your sub. :(

Chris Fries said...

@M. Pax: Yes, it is. As a reader, I love connecting with a story on a personal level, and as a writer, I love it when someone takes something I wrote and gives it some personal meaning of their own.

@Gina: Thanks! And I agree: Much of the deeper levels of meaning evolve within the writer subconsciously.

@Simon: Thanks! And me, too. ;^)

@Suze: Well, thanks! That's very kind of you to say, Suze. But, ummm... How do you know my sub hasn't already been featured? One of the rules of WRiTE Club is that we never speak of WRiTE Club -- as a submitter, I will give no hints, clues, or declarations about which story, if any, is mine while things are still live. So until I have a piece eliminated by either defeat or non-appearance, I will not speak of which one is mine. So, with this constraint, and given how I've been commenting on the stories in each bout, it means that I'm doing the exact same thing if reviewing my own submission, lest someone figure out that it's mine by how 'different' my review might seem. ;^)

Oh, and I like your new cat avatar!

Mina Lobo said...

Till I read this, I never gave conscious thought to the idea of fiction being a collaborative effort between producer and consumer, if you'll pardon the terms (I use them because I reckon it's more than books; films, sculptures, dance, etc.). Nicely illustrated, Dude. :-)
Some Dark Romantic

Milo James Fowler said...

This is where I often struggle, Chris. I sometimes like to write ambiguous endings where readers can take away whatever meaning they want from the story -- but most editors DO NOT appreciate this type of ending.

Suze said...

Chris, yer sly. I was thinking people didn't review their own piece so I guessed you hadn't come up, yet!

I'm curious about the pieces of people I know and wonder if, at the end, there is some way to find out. I guess the most straightforward way is to simply ask when it's all said and done -- which I will no doubt do!

.jessica. said...

Hi twin-friend. I know you're probably busy and elsewhere and I hope you're doing awesome wonderful things - just wanted to stop in and say hi and I miss your blog presence in my life! Come back! :) No pressure of course. But you're missed!

Lorena said...

Chris, I've just read your entire series on your quest for a good story and I think you've done a superb job with it!

About theme or meaning: I didn't use to give it much importance (for me, it was all about plot, closely followed by character). In fact, after four versions of my first novel and halfway thru the first draft of my second novel, I finally realized the importance of theme. Now I see that it should exist side by side with the plot. Actually, it's easier to determine the ending of your novel once you know what your theme is (it's not surprising that endings used to be the hardest parts for me to write!)

Thanks for all these insightful posts!

Chris Fries said...

@Mina, Milo, Suze, Jes, and Lorena -- I'm VERY sorry for my being away from this blog and missing your comments! I very much appreciate them!

@Mina: Thanks! And I'm glad my hiatus ended before your upcoming blogfest. ;^)

@Milo: LOL! I bet. Of course, so far most editors don't seem to like ANY type of ending I've submitted so far. ;^)

@Suze: Yep -- I'm sly. And, uh, while will glad do so at some point, I can't say any more about WRiTE Club at this time, so you can draw your own inference about that...

@Jes: Awww, you're too sweet! Thank you so much for the kind words and warm thoughts! It's nice to be missed (I missed you, too). ;^)

@Lorena: Well, thank you very much! I apologize for making you wait for the final installments, but I promise they'll be up very soon. ;^)