“Writing is magic,” notes Stephen King, the most prolific author in history, “as much the water of life as any other creative art. The water is free. So drink. Drink and be filled up.”
I concur, so much so that it is the featured quote on my website.
But is it magic? Is writing so capricious an enterprise to be subject to the whims of inspiration or throes of futility (writer’s block, anyone)? In fairness, it can feel that way. From one moment to the next, we find ourselves cursing or extolling our muses. The muses are a beleaguered lot, if you think about it. Wantonly summoned and dismissed, their wisdom is heartily imbibed in the intoxication of the moment, then all too often forgotten.
King, is course, is referring to the act of writing, rather than implying some fortuitous sleight of hand. Writing is a craft, loaded like any other with peaks and valleys, joy and anguish, victory and defeat. Inspiration is needed, but is only as good as the habits and hard work it compels. Find your muse, I have argued, and then fire her. There comes a time to face that beckoning blank page on our own.
So what, then, is the secret King talks about? What is the magic—that strange and elusive alchemy which can be at once our scourge and our salvation?
I thought I’d put math in my rearview mirror long ago, but turns out there is a formula, which if practiced consistently, unlocks that magic box after all. Okay, well, maybe not formula of math, per se. But it is an indispensable literary calculus. And it is…
Writing’s Secret Formula: SW2C
So What and Who Cares.
If as writers, we can answer this equation for our readers—or, preferably, they get them to readily answer it for themselves—we’ll have done our job. We’ll have discovered that magic—or rather created it.
Of course, a magician doesn’t reveal his secrets, and neither should we. If our readers find themselves thinking about our techniques and literary elements as they go along (even if admiringly), then we don’t quite have them. As storytellers, we want to conjure such an immersive experience that it transports our audience to that world.
Anton Chekhov famously said:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.
What Checkov is referencing is technique—that seminal edict to show don’t tell—but his directive also applies to the totality of a work. We must make readers care about our characters and what happens to them. There is no right or wrong way for them to feel or care—what matters, is that they do.
If You Build It, How Will You Know if Readers Will Come?
If you build it, they will come.
Some still cling to that wishful axiom. One of the reasons for this, may be found in our allegiance to that wisdom which exhorts us to write for ourselves. There is no shortage of pithy, poignant quotes to this end. And they’re right. If you’re writing for others and not yourself, your work may ultimately ring hollow, may lack passion and authenticity. Of course, if you want to be published, you can’t be cavalier about your desired audience, or no audience shall you have.
It’s just a matter of balance, sequence, and connecting the dots. The concepts are intrinsically related, and drawing tight the ties which bind them can be a game-changer for your work. Don’t let the tail wag the dog: write first for yourself, then tell your readers—show your readers—why it should matter to them.
So much writerly advice turns on the construction of story from a careful assemblage of vital literary parts. Nothing wrong with that. A car can’t run without its parts; so too with a story. Characterization, plot, setting, POV—well, you know the drill. And it’s not enough that the parts are there—they must be well-executed and come together as a cohesive whole.
Okay then, you’ve assembled a story: will they (your precious readers) come?
If you make it worth their while—if you make them care—then, yes.
Find Your Why for Writing This Story
You might be familiar with Simon Sinek’s work around Finding Your Why. Its applications to leadership are wide-ranging, which is perfect for writers, because isn’t great writing also about inspiring people? Your words are your wand; you can entrance your audience and lead them through a wonderful journey. This is especially if you’ve mastered the formula: So What, and Who Cares. This is a question and equation you must answer thoroughly, first for yourself, then for your readers.
A decade ago, I conjured a tale of magic, immortality, and adventure. I promised my young son I would write it for him (with the protagonist based on and named for him). I wrote intermittently—for years—partly because, well, life happens but also because my story was missing something. It had some good parts and some good writing, but something was eluding me. My why. I was missing the heartbeat of my tale. Beyond the promise to my boy—a covenant I took quite seriously—I still needed to determine why the story mattered. So what? Who cares?
How I Found My Story’s Why
One day when my son was playing with his little sister at a park, I saw him suddenly rush forward, scoop her up, and backpedal rapidly away. Unnoticed by me, a large bee had circled over her head. Bee-sting allergies run in our family. David, despite his own trepidation, removed his sister from harm’s way.
My heart welled as a father, but something else crystallized in that moment: I had found the heartbeat of my tale.
I remembered how Jurassic Park was, at its core, more about Chaos Theory than it was about dinosaurs, and I knew my story must be about more than magic, duels, and secret worlds. It had to have characters who mattered to readers and who had goals and obstacles that would collide in a nexus of conflict that readers wanted to see—needed to see—unfold.
5 Questions to Help You Figure Out Why Your Story Matters
Whether you’re a loyal outliner or an undying pantser, there are a few questions which if properly considered, will serve you and your story well.
1. Why does it matter to you?
2. Why will it matter to others?
3. How can you make it matter?
4. What effect do you want to produce?
5. Do you want readers to feel something, and if so, what?
There is no right answer. Don’t confuse the means for the end. Masterfully present your literary elements, wield those tools at your disposal, but first you must still find that locus, that heartbeat, that why.
Trust Your Instincts
Consider what your favorite stories did for you, and how they did it.
Why do they matter to you?
What are the things that matter most to you in life?
You’ll be surprised how a few minutes contemplating such matters can get the writerly wheels turning. Ideas are everywhere, hiding in plain sight. Don’t fret about originality. As Shakespeare mused, there is no new thing under the sun. The trick is to find an idea and make it yours.
My favorite nonfiction scribe Erik Larson noted how most if not all of his subject matter had been tackled many times before. The trick was finding an angle, perspective, subplot, or story yet to be told. In other words, why write another treatise about the sinking of the Lusitania, unless he could find a genuine way to make it matter? (He did.)
Keep It Simple
Don’t complicate things. A few key questions, such as those I have suggested, ought to suffice. Sure, you can ponder such things as target audience, genre, market trends—and definitely must do so when revising and eventually promoting your book—but again, sequence. You first must answer the equation as it pertains to yourself, and to your readers. Once you do, you’ll be well on your way. You can keep the formula secret. Let ’em think it’s magic.
Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Why do you think you story matters and why do you care about writing it? Tell me in the comments!
The post Writing’s Secret Formula: How to Write Stories That Matter appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.