November is fast approaching, and with it comes plenty of great advice from around the NaNo community on how to create your novel. Today, author Dinty W. Moore shares his thoughts on one of the most challenging questions asked of any writer: what’s your story really about?
Why do people read books? Why do people stream Netflix long into the evening? Why do people sit for hours in a coffee shop chatting about their co-workers?
The answer is simple: we love a good story.
With NaNoWriMo just days away, now might be the best time to remind ourselves what constitutes a good story—or better yet, what is it that makes a story absolutely compelling. The goal for our NaNoWriMo month shouldn’t be merely to write a novel in 30 days. The goal should be to write a novel that folks are clamoring to read.
Remember this: Stories which leave readers eager to follow along through each moment and every surprising turn did not begin with Shakespeare, Dickens, or Stephen King. Captivating storytelling goes back to the origins of language itself.
Long before printing presses and book clubs, our ancestors kept fear at bay by spinning tales of heroic hunts, of memorable victories, and of mysterious, powerful gods. These early stories mark the beginnings of imaginative fiction. How to explain thunder, floods, birth, death, the inexplicable movement of the sun? Our ancestors created stories to explain these. Stories that gave them both understanding and solace. Or, as author Barry Lopez puts it, stories are part mystery, part ministry, and absolutely indispensable.
“We need them, I believe, in the way we need water…” he writes. “The reason we tell stories … is to keep each other from being afraid.”
Novelist Ben Percy suggests that the most enduring stories reach readers at the deepest level by taking “a knife to the nerve of the moment.” Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein—the story of a mad doctor who uses electricity to create a superhuman monster—found its root power by reflecting people’s fears of the industrial revolution, while Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers – later made into the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers – connected directly to mid-20th-century fears of communist spies infiltrating small-town America.
“Stories revive us, challenge us, startle us, and offer us new ways to reflect upon our world and the current moment’s most perplexing questions.”
Percy’s own book, Red Moon, begins with a man on a commercial jetliner inexplicably transforming into a werewolf and attacking his fellow passengers. This transformation is happening not just on the one plane, but simultaneously on two other airplanes, one of which crashes into a wheat field.
Does that sound at all familiar?
“We fear, more than anything, terrorism and disease,” Percy explains, “and I braided the two together.”
Not all stories are horror stories, of course, but all enduring stories find their power by addressing intrinsic human concerns, those vexing problems that keep us awake and thinking late into the night.
- Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice features neither werewolves nor body snatchers. Instead, this tale of five unmarried daughters in 19th century England and the eligible bachelors who come calling enchanted readers by reflecting upon contemporary concerns about class, gender, and morality.
- The Harry Potter series is about more than schoolchildren and magic spells; it explores the power of self-sacrifice and the importance of tolerance.
- Alice Walker’s The Color Purple is, on the surface, the story of African-American women living a generation or two beyond slavery, but the underlying issues of prejudice and family violence resonate with readers of any race, any age, any time.
This is why people tell stories, and why we listen to the good ones with such rapt attention. Stories revive us, challenge us, startle us, and offer us new ways to reflect upon our world and the current moment’s most perplexing questions.
Now, as you prepare for NaNoWriMo, is a good time to ask: How does your story touch “a knife to the nerve of the moment”?
What’s your story really about?
Dinty W. Moore is author of The Story Cure: A Book Doctor’s Pain-Free Guide to Finishing Your Novel or Memoir and many other books. He has his work in The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Normal School, and elsewhere, and has won numerous awards for his writing, including fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. You can find Dinty at www.dintywmoore.com and on Twitter as @brevitymag.
Top image licensed under Creative Commons from Dave Herholz on Flickr.