Stories have intentions.
That wonderful idea was just one of many nuggets I found myself highlighting in what has so far turned out to be my surprise read of the year—noted literary agent Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.
Like many of you, I cut my teeth on Maass’s now-classic Writing the Breakout Novel, but for whatever reason never followed up with any of his other many writing guides, even though they’re all on my TBR list. Fast-forward sixteen years to when I caught Emotional Craft of Fiction as part of a Kindle sale. I started reading it about a month ago, fully expecting a smart but conventional tome of tips for drawing dimension into characters. I got that, but what I wasn’t expecting was that, non-fiction though it is, this would be one of those books with “intentions.”
Just as the best of all writing advice should, the wisdom found in this book applies to so much more than just writing. If storytelling is about exploring life, then good writing advice should inevitably evoke solid life advice as well. (Which, on a side note, is what I’m excited to learn Wesley Baines, a familiar name on this site, is exploring in a forthcoming book about the importance of writers developing traits such as empathy and wisdom.) I find it no coincidence that the two great interests of my life—storytelling and personal growth—continually converge. They are, in so many ways, the same interest.
Many people have taken the time to tell me they enjoyed my book Creating Character Arcs more for its insights into their own life changes than for that of their characters. My response is always an eager, “Right?!” Because that was totally my own experience in discovering character arcs. For me, understanding how to convincingly portray human change on the page was ultimately a journey in understanding how I change and grow.
That, in itself, should be reason enough to go out and read Maass’s book right now—because its great insights into character crafting are really just an emergent of its insights into life itself. The book (intentionally?) came to me at exactly the proper moment in my own life, as I am neck deep in working on emotional fluency.
More than that, however, I found Maass’s book and his comment about “intentional stories” to be a rallying call to writing not just authentic fiction, but the kind of fiction that both invites and encourages readers to follow the characters on Positive-Change Arcs.
I’m not even going to try to do justice to the vastness and depth of the topics Maass covers, but after finishing the book, there are two things I want to do.
1. I want to share a few of my own thoughts on why and how to take up Maass’s challenge to start (or continue) writing not just fiction, but life-changing fiction.
2. Because I want everybody everywhere to read this book, I’m giving away 10 paperbacks to random winners. Scroll to the bottom of the post to enter using the Rafflecopter widget. Winners will be selected at the end of the week. If you don’t win, please find a copy somewhere else and read it! You gotta pinky promise.
5 Starters for Writing Life-Changing Fiction
There are so many different kinds of stories—everything from heroes’ journeys to stream-of-conscious mirrors of prosaic days, from fantasies to exposés, from comedies to tragedies, from genre mashups to literary tomes. There’s something for every one of us at every moment of our lives. Every single type of story has within it the potential seed to absolutely transform at least one of its readers.
Those are the stories I want to read and watch. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are nuclear.
I would like to write these stories as well. (Even if the only reader who is changed is me, I’d still be pretty happy with that.) To that end, here are some ideas I’ve mulling on, some of which coincide with those presented in Maass’s book, others which were catalyzed for me by the book.
1. Write With Honesty and Self-Awareness
It’s not stories that change people’s lives; it’s the truth. When stories speak truth, it’s like they’re puzzle pieces fitting into inner holes the audience didn’t even realize were there. There’s a line in Jonathan Latham’s essay in Light the Dark that talks about how when you encounter something true, it doesn’t feel like you just learned something new. Rather, it feels like you suddenly remembered something you knew all along.
The only way to write truth so powerful it gives readers that dichotomous sense of coming home to a place they’ve never before visited is by daily doing your utmost to clear away your own inner fuzziness. Cognitive dissonance, defensive egos, and repressed emotions are things we all deal with that inevitably muddy our thinking. As human beings, we bear the responsibility to try daily to do a little housecleaning. As writers, that responsibility is doubled. When asking readers to suspend disbelief, we are implicitly asking them to believe we will share with them something true. That’s a contract of trust.
2. Write With Humility and Humor
But let’s not be pompous, shall we? Every day for me is a discovery of some life-truth that astounds and excites me. I want to share every one of those truths with every single person I can. But even in the midst of my own enthusiasm (and, sometimes, overweening pride at my unprecedented cleverness), there’s a part of me that knows full well not all my truths are going to be interesting to others. Indeed, not all of my truths are really true. Today’s certainty may turn out to be tomorrow’s mirage.
If, in writing, we accept the terrible responsibility of speaking truths to our neighbors, then we also do well to acknowledge our own unsuitability for that role with more than a little self-deprecation. I want to tell the truth; I want to change your life. But, c’mon, I’m just a struggling schmo too. Very likely, that’s the greatest truth I’ll ever know or share.
3. Write Actionable Fiction
As a reader and especially a viewer, I spend an inordinate amount of time preemptively bypassing stories that seem hellbent on sending me to bed with a downer. I love incisive, hard-hitting, even dark fiction—but not if it gives me dog-breath from the bad taste in my mouth.
Maass nailed it when he wrote:
Some people may read fiction to be frightened, but they never read it to be brought down. They may wish to be challenged, but they don’t want to be crushed. They may read for amusement, but they still have heart. They do seek an emotional experience, as I’ve said, but they also want to come away feeling positive.
I think of some of my favorite stories—The Great Escape, The Book Thief, Gladiator, Wuthering Heights, Black Hawk Down, True Grit—and I’m rather surprised to realize how dark they all are, how most of them end in quantifiable tragedy. And yet… and yet. What these stories have to say about the world is anything but tragic. They tell hard truths, but in the end those truths feel triumphant.
The insight I find most poignant in Maass’s quote is that we should be striving to write actionable fiction. In the same way copywriters are taught to end with a call to action (something people can immediately respond to after hearing about the benefits of the advertised product), fiction writers should also consider what the end of a story may be encouraging readers to do in their own lives.
This does not mean ending with some blatant moral that tells readers to go out and make the world a better place. But we all know the feeling of inspiration found at the conclusion of the kind of story that very well just changed our lives.
This call to action is most important in stories that tell dark truths. Otherwise, the message is “roll over and die.” Stories of injustice, stories of horror, stories of death—they should be about more than just injustice, horror, and death. They should be about what we can do about these tragedies in our own lives after closing the back cover of the book.
4. Write to the Find the Best of Yourself
When you read your own stories, who do you see? It can be hard to identify the person peeking out from between the lines. But take a hard look. If the person you see has been honestly represented, then very likely she’s not a perfect person. She may be full of rage, pain, and fear. She may be downright scary. That’s okay.
But don’t leave it at that. Don’t let your fiction be nothing more than a place to vent all the hard parts of being you. See if you can’t also find the best of yourself looking back at you.
This may sound like I’m in favor of pandering to readers, but I’m actually appealing to the good, positive, and inspiring person called you. Don’t give me easy reading; give me the best of you. When you do, it becomes the best of me, too. Do you believe that it cheapens fiction to make it humane, heart grabbing, filled with goodness? You are not alone in that belief, but I disagree.
The best of you is not some fake version of fairy-tale perfection. The best of you is that enraged, hurting, fearful person who rose above herself and found change. That’s the person I want to know when I read your stories, because that’s the person who is going to inspire me to rise as well.
5. Write Fiction That Hopes
Sometimes it’s hard to even know for sure which stories have changed your life. Sometimes they don’t obviously change us until long after we’ve read them. But sometimes you know.
This summer, I had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies on the big screen as part of a “flashback cinema” program at my local theater. Over the course of three weeks, I sat through all 11 hours and 22 minutes. As a kid, I remember the news gushing about how “life-changing” the films were. For me, this time, they were. It felt like an incredible to gift to get to experience this particular story in this particular medium at this particular time in my life. Samwise Gamgee tells us “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”—and, just like that, my life is changed.
You can change the world with stories of of truthful darkness or even despair. But I can’t help but believe, in agreement with Maass (and Sam), that it is much better instead to choose a different catalyst of change—the catalyst of hope:
You are writing to show us how things are, but aren’t you also writing to show us how things can be? Your current novel is not just a report, right? It’s a vision. It’s a gleeful celebration of what is hard, important, hopeful, and beautiful about life.
There are so many reasons to love stories. And as humans, we do—we truly do—love stories. Speaking at least for myself, I think the single greatest reason I first fell in love with stories, and continue to follow them even to this day as the guiding stars of my life, is their power to change me. If a story creates no impact in my life, then I find I am invariably disappointed on some level. I want to be changed. I want every day to be a transformation. That is why I read, and that is why I write.
And that is why I want you to read Donald Maas’s inspiring challenge to write stories of depth and meaning. Be sure to enter the giveaway below. I leave you with a final quote:
Novels that are truly grand, generous, and confident do not come along very often, but why can’t such novels be yours every time?
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s a story that changed your life? How has it inspired you to want to write life-changing fiction? Tell me in the comments!
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