What to Write

We can talk endlessly about craft, and if you stick with me, we will. But, knowing how to write won’t matter unless we have some idea what to write.

Some people refer to a story’s concept. As in, every story starts with a strong concept. Or, they might refer to a story that isn’t working as conceptually flawed. All this means is don’t write something lame.

You can flawlessly execute a story, but if that story is kind of stupid, what’s the point?

How do we avoid this pitfall?  Well, we have to take a couple steps back to figure out what makes stories worth telling, or more to the point, what is our interest in stories.

Biology comes into play. Psychology. Evolution. We are the way we are because being this way has enabled us to survive, to propagate as a species. Among our advantages, we are problem solvers. We are predictors. We have the ability to simulate the world and understand the likely outcome of our decisions.

That’s where our interest in fiction comes from. We daydream, we imagine, we fantasize, we watch movies, and we read novels because those activities exercise our skill at simulating. We like stories because it to our advantage to be a species who likes stories.

That’s why conflict is so crucial to storytelling, why stakes matter. We’re most interested in rehearsing the types of scenarios that are hardest to predict and that have the greatest consequences.

We’re touching on the subject of theme. A story has to have a point. When we read the Three Billy Goats Gruff, or the Boy Who Cried Wolf, the point is to learn some lesson. As we mature and our fiction grows more sophisticated, the lessons become more abstract. Stories are more about vicarious experience, which is interesting to us for the same reason as regular experience is.

But wait. Does every story have to have a moral? Aren’t some just pure entertainment? Of course they are. For most stories, entertainment is the primary goal. But, what could possibly entertain you, except by engaging your intellect and emotions? And, what could possibly engage your intellect and emotions and not cause you to learn or grow in some way?

Reverse engineer this argument. How do we know what to write? Write something that causes the reader to learn or grow. Think of yourself as a teacher. Find a teachable moment in your own experience and write about that. Or, if necessary, make one up.

You could start by picking a theme that is important to you, and figuring out some way to make a story about it, perhaps by analogy. The Terminator movies were written as an allegory about nuclear weapons. (The tools we build to protect ourselves end up wiping out humanity.)

But, unless you are very skilled, this approach tends to produce works that are preachy. Heinlein – who was certainly very skilled – wrote Starship Troopers partially as an essay about his political views. Several chapters include conversations where the characters directly discuss politics in ways that sound suspiciously like Heinlein talking.

Perhaps a better approach is not to worry so much about theme right away. Start brainstorming, start writing, start planning, however you begin a project. But before you go to far, dig into what you have for themes.

Odds are, themes are already present in whatever you chose to write. It was interesting to you, wasn’t it? Figure out why, and you’ve found some theme. Let’s say you’re writing about robots, and you find that your story – intentionally or not – is about human ingenuity being more important than robotic efficiency.

Do you like that theme? Do you have a lot to say about that theme – perhaps an angle no one else has taken on it? If so, you’ve got yourself a story. There’s plenty of work still to do, but you can proceed down that path and know that at the end of it is a good story.

Do you hate the theme you found? It could be you thought of a cool scene and it grew into a cool idea, and when you dig into it, you find yourself arguing against your own beliefs about the world. It isn’t impossible to write a story this way, but it is advanced.

Poe wrote several stories from the point of view of characters who were insane or even possibly evil. It is easy to write about things you actually believe. Just be honest. When you write against the grain, there is a lot more to keep track of. You have to decide exactly what it is you are pretending to believe, and you have to meticulously prune out places where your true mind would show through.

Worse still, do you dig into a project you’ve just started and find nothing – No theme, no lesson, no point? It’s possible your idea isn’t a story at all. And that’s okay. Not all ideas are stories.

If your idea is to write about time travel, that’s not a story unless you have some point to make about time travel, or some point to make using time travel as a metaphor. Or something.

If your idea is to write a story like Moby Dick, but in space, and instead of a whale there’s a giant elusive space monster, that isn’t a story either. Not unless you know exactly in what way it will be like Moby Dick, and what you will bring to the thematic arena that Melville did not.

It’s possible you have an idea that is underdeveloped. It could become a story, but you haven’t thought it out enough yet. You want to write about AI. You have a lot of scattered ideas and opinions about AI. But you haven’t found your angle yet. That’s probably okay. Still some work to do, but if you feel like you’re close to something, maybe you’ll clarify the story in your own mind in a sloppy first draft. Or maybe you just need to sit and think it over, or do some reading, before it comes together and you’re ready to begin.

Far more often, though, you’ll have an idea that just isn’t a story at all. It’s an image, a line of dialog, a sweet motorcycle stunt, a bizarre setting, a mutant power, piece of sci-fi technology, a stunning title, a great character, or even a complex plot. None of those things are stories. They’re pieces you can use to tell a story. But without a story to tell, they’re not going to do anything.

Keep these pieces handy because you might need them. But, don’t make the mistake of thinking once you have enough pieces you will have a story. If I have half a cow, and you have half a cow, we don’t necessarily have what we need to make a whole cow.

What’s missing is a purpose. Find a reason to use the ideas you accumulate. Figure out some true thing that you believe I need to be convinced of – Nuclear weapons will kill us all. Nature is too complex for humans to control. Overuse of electronics is undermining society. The tardigrade has more claim to this planet than we do.

Whatever your thing is. Find that, and you’ve found a story.