STORIES THAT MATTER

Writing’s Secret Formula: How to Write Stories That Matter

STORIES THAT MATTER

“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.

But how? 

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!

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About Daryl Rothman | @daryl_dcrdrr

Daryl Rothman’s novel The Awakening of David Rose, will be released September 9, 2019, by EvolvedPublishing. He has written for a variety of esteemed publications, and recognitions include Flash Fiction winner for Cactus Moon Press, Flash Fiction second place winner for Amid the Imaginary, and Honorable Mention for Glimmer Train’s prestigious New Writer’s Award Contest. Daryl is on Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook. He’d love you to drop in for a visit at his website.

Comments

  1. I work on scooting myself from of the driver’s seat into the passenger’s. The mistakes that divert me as a reader are clichés and characters overreacting to dialogue. i.e. “You took that sock out of the dryer?,” she wailed, “No!!!”, then grabbed at her hair with both fists.

    • I agree, Meredith. I just tweeted about that yesterday–about letting your characters take the wheel(and cited one of Katie’s great recent posts about character development). Thanks!

  2. I was in a bit of a ‘writer’s rut’ at the present time so this post has been particularly helpful in getting out of it. I needed to ask myself some of those questions so thank you Kate.

  3. K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

    Thanks so much for sharing with us today, Daryl!

    • Thank you so much for letting me. 🙂

    • Michael Moore says

      And I would add a 6th question to the list: “6. What is it about your story that you want your readers to be so excited or touched that they can’t wait to tell all of their friends?” Or, re-written for social media consideration, “If there was a social media comment about your story that went hugely viral, what would it say?”

  4. I have a story I’m quite attached to but I had to put it on the shelf, it was missing a heart. Thank you for this post. I’m going to revisit it armed with those questions.
    And I have to add- it was Solomon who noted there is nothing new under the sun. 🙂

  5. Great article. I am writing projects. What did you love about writing your book? I am doing my rough draft.

    • Thank you. What I loved most was keeping a promise I made to my kids–my novel was inspired by and the protags named for them. It was a long and winding road to publication. Loved seeing it through, and bringing my characters and story to life.

  6. A very philosophical post 😉 Thank you.
    You know, why humans have told stories might be as old as the sponges, and maybe we evolved with such sentience because we need to live through and with others.
    I simply started because I’ve loved books since the second grade. My mind’s eye was addicted to the next house, the next season, the next person, all of which came alive from the pages in a book. So. On a whim, with equal parts arrogance and naivety, three years ago I wrote an opening scene. I had a main character, a place, some dialogue and a very awkward situation.
    I kept at it to the end, and of course I thought I’d hit pay dirt. But more than one editor let me know in so many words just how crappy it was.
    So I’m fixing it.
    Because, not unlike Mr. Rothman, I have friends who love books, and will want to sink their teeth into a good, entertaining women’s commercial fiction novel on some dreary cold winter’s day when the kids have scampered on the bus and the television is as awful as ever. They’ll sit with a cup of tea in front of the fire, waiting for the words to present an unprepossessing young woman taking photographs in the early morning, grassy dunes of a North Carolina beach. They will pick it up and put it down between laundry, errands, phone calls and walking the dogs, and they will ponder this woman and her husband, and wonder if they will make it.

    • Thanks, Mary! A main character, place, dialogue and awkward situation sound like very good ingredients! Pay dirt or not, that you “kept at it to the end,” is a noble victory, and more than many can say. I can’t comment on your editors, but I would say your writing in your comment here is very good. 🙂

      Best wishes.

      • Thank you, sir!

        (Honestly, the draft I had was pretty bad. I threw it aside for awhile because I was so demoralized. Nothing like doing all that work to have a veritable firing squad of cold NYC agents say “Thank you for your submission. If you haven’t received an email from us within two weeks, then good luck somewhere else, lady…” Or, something of that ilk.
        But! I still had a little bit of arrogance left and rewrote and revised. Until an agent at a pitch conference introduced me to a top women’s commercial fiction editor. With her no-nonsense impressions and talent with line editing, it’s gotten so much better.)
        So, the “WHY” of the story was, in fact, distilled. Hazzah!

  7. Darryl,

    This post was so timely! As I sit down to plot my next story about immigration, I find myself taking notes and asking myself questions.
    Stories that matter have a why, inspire, provoke thoughts, make us fee. Moreover, they make us care.
    You are a great teacher.
    Thank you!

    ~Ingmar

  8. Dennis Michael Montgomery says

    Thanks for the question ‘Why does it matter to you?’ Now, how do I answer the question? My new story (which I’m stuck on right now) is important to me, but I can’t say why (and no it’s not because of money).

    • Hi Dennis. There is no one right way to answer the question. I might suggest, just keep wrestling with it, and keep writing. Ponder why it matters to your characters, why it might matter to readers. You conceived and kindled and began a story, so it DOES matter to you. There are no edicts which are absolute. Hopefully, the ones I suggest in the post at the very least help us pay attention to our characters’ motivations and whether we are keeping our readers in mind. Keep at it, and best wishes.

  9. THANK YOU SO MUCH. I have been struggling with my story for several weeks now, and there was just something wrong with it. I wasn’t sure what. Your five questions (and the other couple) got me thinking, I revisited the theme of my story, its whys (which are very important to me as a fanfiction writer), and all those other things. I dropped an insane plot twist that broke the theme and point of the initially-named ‘The Unbroken’ and turned my main character into an overcomer, not a puppet.

    Thank God! I’d been asking for this, and here it showed up into my inbox. What a miracle!

  10. I never thought to write by asking questions . thanks for your advise

  11. I always enjoy your podcast and post. This one was no exception. But I want to reply this time to a previous post. I really enjoyed the book the Scottish Chiefs. I just finished it recently. And because it was written so long ago, it really gives you a perspective on those times and the language of those times. And to top it off it was a good story too.

    I’m on my way to Chadron Nebraska to visit my daughter. I just had a little time to spare at this campground in Rawlings Wyoming so I thought I’d get this quick text off. Best wishes, Glenn

  12. Interestingly re the shakespere quote : what has been will be again, what has been done will be done again, there is nothing new under the sun… Taken from ecclesiastes 2:9 in the bible. Thus proving even the reference is nothing new!
    Great post, very helpful. Thanks

  13. Hi K.M,
    Good to read this, it is a perfect inspiration and guide for an upcoming writer. It shows that authors are creators indeed!

  14. Hi, Mr. Rothman, I enjoyed the blog. I agree that if writers aspire to become great storytellers they have to master the techniques. I like the part where you talked about “5 Questions To Help You Figure Out Why Your Story Matters” and to “Trust Your Instincts.” Thanks for sharing these tips.

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  1. […] https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/how-to-write-stories-that-matter/# ““Writing is magic,” notes Stephen King, the most prolific author in history, “as much the […]

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