Monday, January 16, 2017

The Story Within Your Story

When I was in college, I was taught that stories structured according to a plan and moral were formulaic and lacked the organic honesty necessary to a great work of art. What I learned how to do was write beautifully symbolic imagery, fragmented from any sort of larger purpose (and we could launch into a whole discussion of academia and postmodernism with that, but let's be honest, I would be the only one interested in it. :) ).

Then, I went the other direction. When I fell in love with writing romance for CBA, I was finally free to write those moral-of-the-story scenes my heart had longed to put on the page. What I ended up writing then were overly-formulaic sequences wherein the characters came across flat and predictable.

Now, I realize-- all great stories need both honesty and morality.

If you try to hard to actively push a moral or agenda, you do not have a story. You have instruction, preaching, and perhaps, some metaphor. But you don't have an honest and gripping story.

But if, on the other hand, you follow where your whims take you and write compelling scenes with absolutely beautiful imagery that do not advance any kind of larger plot and structure, you do not have a premise. And therein again, your story probably stinks.

Ever wonder why no one really enjoys reading literary fiction? Even us book nerds who "get it"?

BECAUSE THERE IS NO STORY! You guys, it seems to painfully obvious to me now. I don't know why I didn't figure this out ten years ago, when I thought I might want to write "literary fiction."

If you haven't read Stanley Williams' book The Moral Premise, you absolutely need to buy and read it ASAP... it's probably the most helpful text I've ever read for writers. And in it, Williams essentially says that every strong story--every story that resonates with readers or viewers-- upholds some sort of moral premise. Even a tragedy. Think about Finding Nemo and the questions it presents to us of identity and home. Or It's A Wonderful Life, and its themes of contentment and community. Or Jane Austen's preoccupation with class structure and gender power relations.

If you want your story to be successful, it needs to present a consistent moral. But how does that happen? Do you go out and say, "I want this story to be about faithfulness... or love... or grace... or forgiveness... or fear"? Well, maybe. Some people do. But usually, that gets you into dangerous territory because you start to force your characters.

There's another way I want to suggest.

Know yourself.


And then recognize within yourself the themes that are important to you.

Allen Arnold often says in his workshops that the enemy preemptively attacks areas of God's greatest glory in our lives.

Are you afraid of failure? Then why? What do you have to lose? Could it be that your fear actually stems from a great passion and purpose that you need boldness to step into?

Are you angry? Bitter? Then why? Do you need to forgive someone--even yourself-- to find the healing God has extended to you?

 Struggling with insecurity? Why? Do you feel the dream God's given you is just too big to actually come true?

Dig deep. I know it's not always easy. Be honest. And I'll bet you'll find something amazing-- that the moral of your manuscript is already within you.

See, your characters don't have to preach to one another in order to speak God's truth.

I dare you to do something braver.

I dare you to tell your story through the themes of your manuscript. To not hide behind forced dialogue attempting to prove your point. But instead, to write the struggles that you have faced--that others face-- in all their complexity.

Then you will discover the story within your story.

So, be brave, friends. Dig deep. Because the world needs to hear that story!


Ashley Clark writes romance with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blog, Facebook, Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

WOW. That hit me like a sucker-punch to the heart today. There's so much truth and power in these words, Ashley. I need to pray about this for sure.

Keely Brooke Keith said...

LOVE this! Thank you, Ashley!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

My goodness. I really needed this today. Thank you for the truth in your post.

Angie Dicken said...

You are speaking my heart always. Love you and can't wait to see what God has in store for your writing! ❤️

Pepper said...

What a beautiful post, Ash! Truly - from the heart!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you so much, dear friends. If it hits your heart, it's because it comes from mine. I've struggled with this a lot over the years. I think sometimes when we are terribly passionate about something, that passion is God-breathed, but we force the breath on our exhale. Rather than trusting God to work through us, we try to perform CPR in our stories, and it just doesn't go well. But it can be such a hard impulse to resist, can't it?! We aren't necessarily trying to "play God" by forcing our hand... we really do care about justice or forgiveness or hope or love or healing or mercy. But in the end, that's exactly what we're doing. And instead, we've got to let the story breathe for itself.

I've found that in my most recent story, just being true and honest with the character development and resisting this impulse as much as possible has gone a long way in helping me craft much more complex and compelling characters. Rather than a means to an end, they are people to me, and I hope readers feel the same.