What The Story Knows Best Really Means

When writers start talking about the autonomy of their stories, non-writers are likely to give us looks that range from confused to concerned, especially when our comments include the following: “The story knows best.”

Or— “Nothing was working for me until I quit fighting my story and let it do what it wanted.”

Or— “I have no control over my story. I just sit back and let it take off.”

Or— “My characters made me do it.”

These comments may sound like wild exaggerations to our listeners, but  we mean every word. Our stories often do seem to have minds of their own, and those minds usually seem to understand the subtleties of story craft much better than we do.

What Does “The Story Knows Best” Really Mean?

As our nervous non-writing friends would be quick to point out, a story isn’t a conscious entity. It can’t know anything. Our characters are just figments of our imagination. Outside our own minds and the words we’ve put on paper, our characters don’t exist, much less exercise control over us or our story worlds.

So how can we claim to “listen to the story” when the story is really just an emanation of ourselves?

To some extent, “the story knows best” is a pie-in-the-sky concept used by writers in an attempt to describe the indescribable. When you’re in the throes of creative passion, hammering away at words that seem to appear faster than you can think them—or when the story does things you never planned for it to do—or when your characters take the bit in their teeth and gallop away onto trails unknown—that’s something almost too magical to put into words. How do you explain any of that to someone who’s never experienced it—when you can barely grasp it yourself?

We can’t. So instead we say, “the story did it.” Or “our characters took charge.” Or we were “just a conduit through which higher inspiration could flow.”

The Truth About Our Best Writing Inspiration

None of the above ideas are really true. What is true is this:

The story doesn’t know best. The characters don’t know best. You know best.

Yes, you.

When we say “the story knows best,” what we really mean is “our unconscious story sense knows best.” Even when we can’t consciously articulate what we’re feeling, something deep inside understands how to craft our stories into perfection. Authors must make a point of not just acknowledging this underlying story sense, but of recognizing it in action and refining our ability to interpret and channel it.

Talking about how our “stories know best” is a fun and easy way to describe the process, but it can inhibit our ability to see our instinctive story sense for what it really is and to work toward harnessing it in perfect tandem with our conscious, logical story skills.

The next time you’re talking about your story with hapless non-writers, let that twinkle in your eye shine out as you unnerve them with your announcement that your story knows best. But don’t forget to remind yourself that, really, it’s your inner story sense doing all the heavy lifting.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What do you really mean when you tell people “the story knows best”? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I love this post, K.M. You’ve touched on something I’ve thought about a number of times. I used to say my characters were talking to me, as though they were writing their own stories. One day, I realized I’m the one in control, and as the author, I have to tell my characters where they’re going and what they’re doing because their natural tendencies are to make life easier on themselves. It’s my job to make things tough on them so they experience the growth (aka character arcs) that will enable them to become better, stronger people as a result of the lessons they learn during their trials. In essence the characters in my inspirational historical romances earn their happily-ever-afters.

    I’ve ceased to talk about my characters taking over the story these days. What I’m more likely to say is that the story is flowing. As you pointed out, that acknowledges my part of the creative process, hopefully without sounding like I’m boastful. As I think about it, that could be the reason we give the story or characters credit when things are going well.

  2. You make a good point about our giving our characters the credit as a way of shifting the attention off ourselves – and that’s fine, as far as it goes. But at the end of the day we, as authors, are the boss, and our characters have to do what we say.

  3. Wonderful post! It is so liberating to know that we really are in control of the story. For months now (almost a year)I’ve avoided writing the book in my head because when I talked it over with my sounding board she got really mad. There was lots of “How could you do that to them?” and “I’m not going to read it if you do that.”

    I always answered that I didn’t want to do it, but that’s what happens in the story. It was a weak “the story made me do it” but essentially the same thing. As I’ve mulled it over I’ve come to realize that the driving climatic scene my friend hated must happen in order for my MC to push past her growth plateau.

    It hit me as I read your post–It’s my choice and I know its the right one. Thank you once again for saying something that pushes me forward in this process!

  4. The input of trusted readers and critiquers is always valuable, but, at the end if the day, only the author knows what’s best for the story. Sometimes we have to heed the cautions of others, and sometimes we just have to trust our guts and forge ahead.

  5. Keli got it right! “I have to tell my characters where they’re going and what they’re doing because their natural tendencies are to make life easier on themselves.” If they had their way, they’d meet cute, find the treasure on the first clue, and cut straight to happily ever after on page 6, And what fun is that? I’m in charge. If that means none of us gets any sleep for 48 hours, well, there it is.

  6. It’s sort of like our own lives, isn’t it? We’d be more than happy to have life sail along – but, then, how would we ever grow?

  7. You’re kidding, right? 😉

  8. Many a truth is said in jest. 😉

  9. An American emigrant, rather than drive from inside the wagon, often walked alongside the family’s oxen. Most of the time the oxen followed ruts in the trail and the wagon ahead. But sometimes the scent of water, a nearby herd of buffalo or other distractions lured them off course. When the team veered, the emigrant struck the ground near the lead oxen with a whip to guide them. In the same way, I walk alongside my characters to lead them.

  10. I like that illustration a lot – especially the cracking of the whip. Sometimes my characters need a like of whip-cracking to get them to behave!

  11. An interesting post, to be sure. I’ve run across such excuses in my time: “My characters won’t do what I want them to do, my story won’t go the way I want it to go,” etc. By and large, these excuses rankle. They smack of laziness, of slothfulness at the reins. A horse, if it’s a spirited one, will try to take the bit and go its own way with you. A rider, if he’s a good one, will keep the horse well in hand.

    We must, of course, admit the obvious: a piece of writing is its own story, independent in many ways from your own history (unless it is some kind of biography) and characters, like people, are their own beings. Particularly with characters, if they are well fleshed-out and life-like, an author finds them suddenly making “their own decisions” and “doing their own thing.” In reality, I find it’s merely your subconscious understanding what the character would do, and inserting such occasions in place of what your overbearing author self would like them to do.

    Tush, I ramble. In a tiny mirror-like way, stories and characters are our own creation, and we make the providential measures to bring the story about; the characters have free will, as it were, and operate by themselves, but this is only natural as befits rational beings; they are always within our control.

  12. Excellent thoughts. I’ve always found reassurance and inspiration in the (seemingly infinite) comparisons between God and His creation and an author and her creation. In the worlds of our stories, we’re omnipotent. The characters do what we say, or, pfft, that’s the end of them. But, at the same time, even in the midst of our predestined plots, our characters do often seem to exercise a fair amount of free choice. It’s a fascinating conundrum, to be sure.

  13. Janalyn Voigt had an excellant point. Our characters do tend to go there own way sometimes–it’s a matter of whether they’re chasing water or a mirage.

  14. Oooh, you guys are full of good metaphors today! I like the water/mirage comparison a lot too. We’ve all chased after what seemed like a brilliant idea – only to have it evaporate like a vision in the desert when we get there.

  15. Hi, K.M. I usually tell people that I allow the next part of the story to gestate between the time where I turn off the computer until the next day when I turn it on again. During that time I have allowed the story to reveal itself to me. I then simply write done everything that I “saw” since my last session. I’ve tried not to overanalyze how it works, but just give thanks that it does.
    Thanks for posting.

    -Jimmy

  16. That’s often how it works for me too. Whenever I’m stuck on a story problem, my best solution is usually just sleeping on it. Nine times out of ten I’ll wake up with the solution.

  17. Excellent post, KM! I am constantly surprised by the way my characters reveal things to me (and yes, my nonwriter friends think I’m weird…wait, that’s probably why I have more writer friends than nonwriter ones.) Every time I do a rewrite, a new piece of info shows itself and then I go “aha! That’s what was missing!”. Good to know it’s only my subconscious dictating my plot and characters. Otherwise, my nonwriter friends would have been right! 🙂

  18. Well-timed post since I killed my characters this weekend. And most of the unstory, too.

    I’m much happier now–and I’m sure they are, too.

  19. @Cherie: Well, considering I’ve yet to meet a writer who wasn’t “weird,” I have to say I’m with your non-writer friends on this one – and proud of it! 😉

    @Sandra: Hah! That totally made me laugh out loud. You sadistic author, you!

  20. For me the fastest stream of creative rush comes in the brainstorming phase. Once I order the scattered mental sound bites I can take charge of the story.

  21. That’s a good way to explain it. The subconscious rush of early conception and creativity is where I let my characters do most of their exploring. Once I’ve locked them down in a plot, they have a lot less wiggle room.

  22. I rely on my subconscious all the time when I hit a snag in drafting or need to revise something and make it stronger. But it’s all about knowing when to let it take over instead of beating yourself up over something you can’t figure out. Time and the wheels in the back of the head are sometimes the best tools in a writer’s arsenal.

  23. I’ve had days where I’ve run into a snag early in a writing session, then sat there for two hours, banging my head against the keyboard, trying to figure out a solution. Finally, I leave the problem until the next day, sleep on it, and – inevitably – my subconscious will have sorted it out and come up with the (obvious) answer while I wasn’t even thinking about it.

  24. Some of my best solutions happen when describing the situation to another writer. As I lay out the problem in detail, the solution usually shows up. If the problem is created by a writing blog (the act of reading the description and examples makes it magically appear in my own work, since it didn’t exist before then), describing it in the comments often does the trick.

  25. I generally hate talking about unfinished problems, but sometimes working the problem out aloud to a willing listener is the best way to sort through what works and what doesn’t.

  26. K.M.
    Thank you for condensing this often discussed concept into such clear terms. Your statement, “When we say “the story knows best” what we really mean is “our subconscious story sense knows best”, provides complete clarity.

    Isn’t it interesting how so many high profile writers never learn this. Sure, they understand the rush of thoughts and paragraphs that flood the mind faster than our computer’s can accept our keyboard input.

  27. At the end of the day, this isn’t a concept that’s going to make or break your success as a writer or your ability to write amazing stories. But the more clearly we’re able to view the creative process – and the less mysticism and superstition in which we cloak it – the better we can learn how to work through it to our advantage.

  28. I need to qualify my answer to your poll: Have your characters ever “made” you do something? You see, I read your blog first. The truth lies in your explanation. I’ll leave it at that for the benefit of anyone who wants to answer before hand.

  29. The poll was kind of a trick question this week!

  30. The fun part is sending the friend thanks for helping, even though I never sent the letter.

  31. Send it! Those friends always deserve our thanks.

  32. Oh, yes, I definitely am in touch with my “inner story sense”. It’s how I’m able to plow through thousands of words in a matter of days because the story is going where it should be. When it’s not, and I’m just writing out of a sense of duty, things bog down. It may take a couple of drafts to really figure out where your story is supposed to go, or many stops and starts, but once you get it, you get it.

    It also helps to read a lot. Reading helps solidify that inner story sense so you know how stories should be told. 🙂

  33. “Writing out of a sense of duty” – I like that. It does a good job explaining how those inevitable dry spells feel!

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