Exploring Your Topic
In the last lesson, we talked about what your story is wrestling with. Now, let’s get down to how we can best convey that struggle.
What should you write about?
I’m sure you’ve heard the recommendation to write what you know. This doesn’t mean that if you’re a teacher, you should write a story about a teacher. To write what you know means to write about something that is emotionally true to you. This is good advice because doing so will make you more familiar with the nuances of the story you’re telling, like the emotions, perceptions, and implications of each action.
Sometimes life puts us into some pretty wild situations, and people have indirect ways of regaining their footing. It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing a story about astronauts, miners, teachers or children: if you dig into how you process grief or stress, you’ll create a fuller, truer, and more complex set of stories and characters.
Quick Exercise: Mine your emotional memory
Think about a time you’ve been wronged, embarrassed, or pressured. Write a few sentences about how an individual event affected your friendships, performance at work, or attitude. Did you become short-tempered, passive-aggressive, forgetful, or disoriented?
Once you understand that the road from action to reaction is hardly linear, you can begin to organize your story. Think about how often we take the stress of our jobs out on our partners, or take our anger at our partners out on our children. It can take hours to process emotion, and in that time reactions subconsciously seep out. If you think about what that road of emotions looks like for you, you can begin to mold the details and direction of your story, making it easier to map it out and keeping it interesting and genuine.
We read in order to understand ourselves better, each other, and the world around us. If readers are looking to identify with a story or a set of characters, you need to make sure that readers can see themselves reflected in that story, as that character, there on the page.
It’s not about the “what,” it’s about the “how”
As far as the subject goes, each story doesn’t have to be unique. Some of the greatest short stories are about the same old topics of love, relationships, and loss. In fact, the topic about which you are writing is the least important part of creating a short story. Sound crazy? It’s not.
Think about what you as a reader gain from a great book. What makes a story great is not the subject but the voice, the details, the perspective — all of which are entirely unique to the writer and, if done well, translate to the reader. Take David Gates and David Sedaris as two examples. Both write stories that often deal with hardships and loss, but their deliveries create two entirely different moods in the reader — one dark and despondent, the other light and humorous. It doesn’t matter which approach you choose, so long as your readers can to immediately identify with your characters.
Speaking of which, the next lesson is all about building those characters. Catch you then!
- 5 Ways to Come up with Great Story Ideas (blog)
- 'People Think I Write Quickly, But I Don't': Interview with Joyce Carol Oates (article)