In a writing workshop with the wonderful Ted Gup, he told us every story should ask two questions: What is the story about? and What is the story about?
That may seem too Zen to be practical. But think about it. It’s true everywhere you look. To Kill a Mockingbird is about how Scout’s brother broke his arm. That’s what she says in the beginning. “When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident.”
Then follows 283 pages that most readers would tell you are about social injustice in the South during the Depression. Or as the back cover blurb says, it’s a journey to “the roots of human behavior—to innocence and experience, kindness and cruelty, love and hatred, humor and pathos.” Or as it claims the author intended, a “simple love story.”
Which is it?
All of that, and whatever each reader brings to the story.
When I read, I’m always looking for the other story. Sure, Rest Home Runaways by Clifford Henderson is about a group of elders who escape their rest home and are chased by the daughter of one of them. But it’s also a multigenerational love story about all kinds of love: romantic, friendship, father-daughter, simply loving life.
Even a classic romance—two women falling in love—can be about so much more. Broken Wings by L-J Baker is about two such women, if being a fairy and a dryad count. But it’s also about love vs. sex, upper- vs. working-class, right-brained artist vs. left-brained laborer, rich vs. poor. Toss in some secrets, lies, and danger, and it’s also a morality play revolving around refugees, horrific cultural traditions, and basic human needs for freedom, happiness, and love.
I’m not talking about subplots. Stories need those too, at least novels. This is the deeper meaning of a piece, its themes. There are several ways to get there.
In an amazing workshop at Grub Street, a writing center in Boston, Amy MacKinnon urged us to use dialogue to say more than merely what the characters are speaking.
John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men was our textbook. In it, as early as page 6, what the story will be about is cleverly foreshadowed in dialogue when George asks Lennie what’s in his pocket and Lennie tells him it’s a mouse. A live mouse? George asks. “Uh-uh. Jus’ a dead mouse, George. I didn’ kill it. Honest! I found it. I found it dead.”
The back cover blurb on my edition says the book is about two men’s journey to find themselves and of the love two men can feel for each other. That’s two of the stories within the slim novel. Steinbeck packs in so much more, and if you want to find out what the mouse represents, read the book.
MacKinnon’s lesson was simple: dialogue should accomplish two things. It can reveal the obvious (what’s in a pocket), but should also reveal plot or character.
This doesn’t only happen in fiction.
I once sat on a committee at work to create a “preferred vendor” list. We interviewed company reps, asking them a host of questions about their business. One question was about environmental certification—did they have it and if not, why? Some companies did not and when asked the question, I expected the usual answer: we’re too small, it’s too expensive. It was a legitimate response.
In one case, I was in for a surprise. The rep went on a rant about how corrupt the certification was, how onerous. He didn’t just rant, he turned red, practically spitting venom. I was literally taken aback, even fearful at this outburst. Is this how he responds in a difficult situation? Clearly something else was going on.
What was the story about? Not being able to afford certification. What was the story about? Any number of possibilities: mourning the lost favor of middle-class white men?, being working class in a white-collared world?, or simply fear?
I believe fear is behind a lot of incongruous responses. Why white male conservatives are so threatened by equal rights for gays, lesbians, blacks, immigrants, non-Christians. It’s not about taking anything away from these white men, it’s their fear of becoming the minority, which is inevitable, and with that a loss of power, of control, of having to watch someone who does not look like them lead the free world.
I believe fear is behind the angry reactions to Caitlyn Jenner’s transition. To the Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage. To the presence of the Confederate flag: The flag is about Southern pride. The flag is about racism. Depending on your POV, you agree with one or the other, but not both.
Setting and descriptions can also do two jobs, tell two stories.
During revisions of my novel, Wishbone, I almost deleted the scene where my main character travels to the Quabbin Reservoir. Why was she there and not somewhere else? Then the theme of transformation that I’d seen cropping up throughout the novel smacked me in the face—it was a true “ah ha” moment. So I left the scene and even brought her back there a couple more times.
When a character has a certain appearance—long blonde hair or green eyes—I want to know what that tells me about her. In Of Mice and Men, George’s sharp features contrasting with Lennie’s huge physique do half the work of showing us what these men are all about and is one of the reasons this short novel packs such a punch.
Used too bluntly, however, as I did in an early draft of my novel, and a feature like curly hair as a placeholder for “independent thinker/wild streak,” as Kelley Eskridge pointed out, becomes a trap.
Too often in lesbian fiction such descriptions reveal nothing. Only that the writer was looking for a way to distinguish one woman from the other and that green eyes are incredibly common among lesbians. Any story with a tall brunette and a short blonde shouts uber Xena fan fiction to me. Sigh.
In my writing, I’d like to be better at revealing character through indirect means. When characters argue, it can be about one thing, but also about so much more and often something completely different. As anyone in a long-term relationship is aware.
The next time you are at a family gathering, especially if it is not the family you grew up in (because it’s easier to be objective), watch body language, facial expressions. Was that joke told with a bouncing knee? Did she just roll her eyes at what her mother said? Conversations exist on multiple planes. Is she telling a story about her trip to Arizona or putting you down for not being so well traveled? Is that how she feels or how you feel?
It’s all grist for the storytelling mill.
Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith provide editing services and writing coaching through Sterling Editing. I highly recommend them.