For the last two days, I’ve been talking about genre. In somewhat subtle terms, I stated that genre is not that important. The first goal of the writer should be to write the best story they can. Genre provides shorthand for communication of certain ideas and story beats to the reader, but if a novel were a meal, genre would be the garnish.
Today I want to talk about the heart of the story. Let’s take a step back and look at story from a high level. Let’s talk about why your story is important, and why are uniquely qualified to write it.
But first, let me say something that sounds controversial.
The Plot Does Not Matter
Wow, it felt really good typing that, but I’m not sure I’ve earned your trust enough to just throw it out there without some support. So let’s break this apart.
Plot is the manipulation of the characters through the story. It is the journey, the trials, the tribulations, the dips and turns and peaks and valleys that take the reader from the first page to the last. The plot should make sense, and it should be coherent.
However, the plot is not the story.
You can take a perfectly good book, perhaps your favorite novel, and start cutting out all the parts that are not plot related. You can delete the descriptions, the dialog, the details of the action, chopping finer and finer until all you have left is plot. After boiling away everything that isn’t plot, what remains is an outline.
Outlines can be interesting, but they aren’t stories. People aren’t waiting with baited breath to read the next outline from their favorite author.
This is one of the places where Stephen King and I agree, though indirectly. In On Writing, King looks at plot as a clumsy tool, only to be used as a last resort. His stories have plots, but the plots are found along the way through discovery writing. He primarily takes a character or a group of characters, puts them in a situation, and then watches them get out.
I believe a good story has a plot, but what that plot is doesn’t matter. It could be anything. How you arrive at your plot depends on your style, and I’ve detailed a couple of approaches this month already.
I’ve already stated my point. When you sit down to write what matters, don’t worry about the plot.
There are as many different answers to this question as there are writers. The answer I will provide, the main point of this essay, is this:
Whatever matters to you, that’s what matters to the story. It is personal.
The best way I can make this clear is to tell you what matters to me.
Love is vital. It is the heart of my religion, and if I could make a wish and change the world, I would fill it with more love. I include all varieties of love in this statement.
Faith is important to me, though not as important as love. I grapple with my own faith, and characters defined in part by their faith resonate with me. This does not necessarily have to be a religion or spirituality.
These are two core principles that define me, Brian C. E. Buhl. Remove either from my being and I cease to be me. That doesn’t mean that’s all I am, and every word out of my mouth isn’t in reference to those two ideas. However, the shape of my life is steered by love, faith, and a number of other principles that define me.
Writing what matters to you guarantees that the stories you write will hold your interest. Novels require a tremendous time commitment. It doesn’t take much to slow a writer down or knock them off track. However, if what they’re writing is deeply personal to them, they are more likely to weather the hard times and see the story through to its end.
You don’t have to intentionally set out to write some deep treatise on one of your core principles. In fact, if you don’t think about it at all, the things that matter to you are going to show up in your stories regardless of your intentions.
Different writers have different ideas that follow them from story to story, whether they intend to include them or not. Referencing On Writing again, King talks about this while talking about themes. The themes in your story can be placed intentionally, or they can show up on their own.
How is this Useful?
Good heavens my section titles are snarky today.
I already mentioned one of the ways this is helpful information, in that if a writer knows what they care about, they can look for it in the stories their writing, and it will help them be more invested and get them through the draft. This is important all by itself.
Where this is most useful is in the quality of the story. When the writer is passionate about the ideas in their story, it translates to the reader.
When you write what matters, it is easier to write what is true. Your truth may be different than everyone else’s truth, but it will still transmit.
I don’t want to sound too mystical about this. In On Writing, King describes writing as telepathy, and while I don’t think he’s wrong, I also don’t think it’s particularly helpful to cloak writing in the language of magic or the supernatural. Writing is a learned skill, and even if we don’t know how to write a best seller every time we put pen to paper, there are methodologies and practices which improve your writing more often than hurt it.
A Few Words on Representation
If you come from a disadvantaged identity, whatever that may be, consider that as a core principle you can lean on in your writing. It’s part of what the Own Voices movement is about. That may be an aspect of your life that you routinely hide. Write what you like, but your life experience and your voice may be exactly what the world needs. It will give comfort to those facing the same challenges you’re facing, and it will give perspective to the rest.
If you’re a cis white male like me, you can write about the cis white male experience, if you like. That particular flavor of voice and life experience will most likely come across in your writing whether you want it to or not, and you will find an audience. However, you probably have more to say, just like I do. Focusing on a larger truth, a more interesting subject, will help set you apart from the rest and make your stories fresh.
The tag line on my blog is “Write Something Good.”
If my primary goal was to make my prose spotless, easy to edit and easy to consume, my tagline would be “Write Something Well.” The difference between a good story and a story that is well written is important to me. I strive to craft my stories to the best of my ability so that they are well written, but that’s not why I write.
I want my stories to get into the heads of readers and make them think. If I’ve done my job correctly, my stories should resonate and change perspectives.
My wish is to add more love in the world, and I want to do that through my books.
Here is your exercise: Look at something you’ve written and ask yourself why the story is important to you. What is it you said in your story that lines up with your core principles? What are the themes that keep showing up over and over in your stories?