Everyone has a story. It takes courage to tell it, be it memoir or fiction, because there comes a point where we must separate the facts from the truth. The challenge for the storyteller lies in distilling events to their essential meaning. When we scratch the surface of our story and begin to ask “why” our story becomes more complicated. This is often where writers get stuck. The more we hold onto our “idea” of our story, the more challenging it becomes to allow our characters to take on a life of their own.
It is human nature to filter our experiences through our perception of the world, because we are always looking for meaning. When we read about a plane crashing into the sea and one hundred and sixty-two people losing their lives, we wonder, even if only on a subconscious level, “What does this mean?” To be human is to interpret the events around us. It’s primal. It’s a survival instinct. But when we stay in survival mode for too long, life begins to lose its meaning. We become fearful, paranoid, withdrawn. To be human is to seek meaning, and it is artists and writers that provide a context for the events of our times.
One of the first exercises we do in the 90-Day Novel workshop is something I call the “credo exercise.” You might want to try this right now.
Simply write for five minutes, beginning with the line: “One thing I feel strongly about is . . .”
This simple exercise connects the writer to the theme they are very likely exploring in their work. They often don’t even realize that this is what their story is about.
The next step is to distill the exercise to one arguable statement, such as: I feel strongly that everyone should be treated equally.
I then ask the writer to explore an opposing argument to this statement. They might come up with something such as: “Criminals don’t deserve the same rights as others,” or “When people are treated equally, there is no incentive to excel.”
Since story is, in essence, an argument, this exercise connects us to the antagonistic forces in our work and we begin to glimpse a wider perspective for our story.
It is common for writers to have an agenda, however subtle, so this exercise challenges us to explore our antagonists with equal integrity. The more we are able to find their inherent humanity, the more honestly we can explore our theme.
The purpose of story is to reveal a transformation. By the end of the story we want to understand WHY we all deserve to be treated equally in order to comprehend what equality actually means.