Monday, May 20, 2013

Getting to "Why" and What to Do With It

It is possible that a story have a richly crafted conceptual universe, but ultimately suffer from a lack of direction. These stories aimlessly present to the reader sprawling worlds filled with wonder and yet are populated by wholly unremarkable people. How is this possible?

In every story, the author endeavors to have you, the reader, care about their work. In an effort to capture attention, the worlds are made into sparkling gems and beautiful things and little thought is given to plot. Some of you might say, "but the author stereotype is often a heartfelt individual with a touching story about struggle and adversity." The author brings in his emotions that temper the story and make it real. This is very true, but what I am getting at is much deeper than that. I'm talking about getting to "why" and why that is different.

If I say I am writing a book about a lonely toy maker, the first instinct is to want to know why the protagonist is so depressed. That is a good first start. So, in an effort to give the toy maker dimension and weight you say that he once had a son, but he died of influenza at the turn of the century. Therefore you end up with this: The toy maker is lonely because he misses his son. While this is a very believable premise this is actually not a story. Where the story is taken from here is the beginning of the story, but many don't recognize this fact.

For the last few months I've been writing a graphic novel. It has thus far been a tremendously laboring process because I have still not articulated fully my answer to "why." The plot is very simple, but why should the reader care? Why should the character be invested? I asked these questions and couldn't find an appropriate answer until recently. (It simply can't be abstracted immediately, but takes time to discern on your own.) In our toy maker example we have a character who is lonely because of a past occurrence. This will determine how the character is conveyed in the story but consider the fact that this is just a surface level detail to a deeper unresolved issue. Why we care about the lonely toy maker, is that he has always wanted someone to share companionship with. This desire is the foundation and the "why" of the character. One day a man knocks on the lonely toy maker's door and tells him that his nephew has been released from jail in a distant land and now he must go to find him and take him home as his new caretaker. Why, again, should the reader care about the toy maker? His deepest desire is for companionship, and he will risk safety and comfort to secure it for himself and his nephew. What will happen on his journey will revolve around this basic need and desire, thereby fulfilling the answer to "why" and offering the story with a deeper level of depth.

I think this is lost on a lot of newer books and stories coming out these days. Many plots today are reactionary. Consider Harry Potter for instance. This is a story about a boy who's parents are killed by an evil wizard. He grows up, discovers himself, but that's really it. If Voldemort never arrived the entire story would be about Harry going to boarding school and then settling down to get a job in a middle class community for the rest of his life. The plot and everything that sums up his character is completely reactionary. Books today seem like rides at Disneyland: we are strapped into this rail guided thrill, only to realize that if we look not two inches behind the stucco exterior of the ride the entire illusion crumbles. Harry Potter isn't even a simple revenge story. He reacts to what is put in front of him in a very binary way. Good or Bad, it's always a 50/50 decision with no grey area.


Ask this question. Get to the deeper meaning of your stories. Give the world something more than just a cheap thrill. It is so much harder to find out how to do this, but when discovered it is all worth it.


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