Thursday, March 13, 2014
Soul and the Story
People often ask me how my career in journalism affected my work as a novelist. It’s a great question because the answer is fairly illuminating on the craft of writing, which takes unequal parts dedication, practice, courage, vision, talent, persistence, thick skin, and perspective.
In short, my journalist career made my novelist dreams a reality. It did so in several ways, partly by forcing me to summit the mountainous 10,000 hours of writing practice required for mastering the basic science of good sentences. It did so even more partly by helping me learn how to build stories -- on deadline! -- that contained beginnings, middles, and ends. It did all of this, mind you, while working with editors and colleagues and sources to make sure the story actually worked for its readers and was true to itself. That’s called professionalism, and it’s an invaluable tool for writers of all stripes.
But the most important lesson journalism crystallized for me was that every story has a soul. It’s up to the writer to find it, name it, and nurture it. In journalism, that’s called nailing your lead and/or your focus graph (the paragraph somewhere near the top of the feature that drills down into what the whole long story is about).
Yes, stories do indeed have souls. The same soul can grow into many different directions, with entirely different sets of characters, locales, and events. Just think about how some cultures believe souls go on to live multiple lives. But the story’s soul is yours to toy with; it's the magic seed necessary for growing a great narrative. Think about the souls of great literary works like Frankenstein, Moby Dick, Don Quixote, The Iliad; they’ve all been told and re-told by later authors and film makers who embraced the story's absolute core or parable, and used it to grow their own new narrative.
What does a story’s soul look like? Let’s see if you can affix these souls to a work of fiction. The story’s soul is: about fellowship triumphing over darkness in the Orc Apocalypse. It’s about overcoming addiction and an intellectually oppressive society to find truth and happiness as an individual. It’s about love killing the demons. It’s about revenge on the shark that ate your mates from the USS Indianapolis.
The soul of a story appears ludicrously simple once it’s denuded to its core, but that’s what makes it so powerful. It’s pure. So whenever you get lost in your story – or article, or essay, or love letter – you can always close your eyes, repeat the story’s soul in your head like a mantra, and then proceed. The story’s soul is your guiding light, your north star.
It starts with the lead. My English professor, Al Wachtel at Pitzer College, used to drill us on thesis statements, a single line (maybe two) into which is condensed the core principle of your entire paper. At eighteen, I thought this was absurd. I silently seethed that over the course of four pages (four pages! Ah! That’s so long! How will I ever type that much on Beowulf!), there is bound to be stacks and layers of messages and meanings that can’t possibly be bundled up and wrapped into a single, encapsulating thesis statement.
WRONG. It can, and it must, be done. If you can’t, you don’t have a cohesive message. Just a pocket of story pearls without a necklace stringing them together. The thesis statement is that necklace. In journalism, when you pitch a story, your editor might say, “Okay, I get it that it’s interesting to you. But what’s the story? What’s the hook?” You need to be able to answer that in such a way that you can sell it to your editor. Or sell your book to an agent with an elevator pitch. Or sell your just-about-anything to just-about-anyone. Otherwise you won’t be able to sell it to your readers, or your clients and consumers. They’ll know you’re pushing something soulless.
Back to the lead. A lead can be three words or it can be thirty. It can answer the five Ws (whowhatwherewhenwhy and how) or it can simply establish the mood: “Call me Ishmael.” “We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.” Regardless, you develop such an intimate relationship with your story what with all the time and energy you devote to it that, until you nail your lead (or your thesis sentence, or your focus graph, or whatever you want to call it), you won’t get the most out of it, just as you can’t possibly have a healthy relationship with someone whose soul eludes you. Find the story’s soul. Embrace it. Nurture it. Then write the hell out of it.
That’s not to say a story can’t have a complicated, hard-to-define soul. It can. But as a writer, I keep coming back and examining my stories’ souls to make sure the plot moves along with some sense of continuity and consistency. I carve out pieces of the story’s soul and implant these mini-souls into each of the characters so as to support the overarching story. Yes. My books have soul.
Writing is good for your own soul. It makes you a smarter and deeper human when you take the craft seriously. Forced to probe your own depths to identify the story’s soul, you may find that all’s well in your interior; or you might discover some areas that need some work, be it by way of knowledge or experience or emotion. In any case...
Keep looking. Keep writing. Keep improving. And pray the story its soul to keep.