A Challenge to Write Life-Changing Fiction (+Giveaway)

Stories have intentions.

That wonderful idea was just one of many nuggets I found myself highlighting in what has so far turned out to be my surprise read of the year—noted literary agent Donald Maass’s The Emotional Craft of Fiction.

Like many of you, I cut my teeth on Maass’s now-classic Writing the Breakout Novel, but for whatever reason never followed up with any of his other many writing guides, even though they’re all on my TBR list. Fast-forward sixteen years to when I caught Emotional Craft of Fiction as part of a Kindle sale. I started reading it about a month ago, fully expecting a smart but conventional tome of tips for drawing dimension into characters. I got that, but what I wasn’t expecting was that, non-fiction though it is, this would be one of those books with “intentions.”

Just as the best of all writing advice should, the wisdom found in this book applies to so much more than just writing. If storytelling is about exploring life, then good writing advice should inevitably evoke solid life advice as well. (Which, on a side note, is what I’m excited to learn Wesley Baines, a familiar name on this site, is exploring in a forthcoming book about the importance of writers developing traits such as empathy and wisdom.) I find it no coincidence that the two great interests of my life—storytelling and personal growth—continually converge. They are, in so many ways, the same interest.

Many people have taken the time to tell me they enjoyed my book Creating Character Arcs more for its insights into their own life changes than for that of their characters. My response is always an eager, “Right?!” Because that was totally my own experience in discovering character arcs. For me, understanding how to convincingly portray human change on the page was ultimately a journey in understanding how I change and grow.

That, in itself, should be reason enough to go out and read Maass’s book right now—because its great insights into character crafting are really just an emergent of its insights into life itself. The book (intentionally?) came to me at exactly the proper moment in my own life, as I am neck deep in working on emotional fluency.

More than that, however, I found Maass’s book and his comment about “intentional stories” to be a rallying call to writing not just authentic fiction, but the kind of fiction that both invites and encourages readers to follow the characters on Positive-Change Arcs.

I’m not even going to try to do justice to the vastness and depth of the topics Maass covers, but after finishing the book, there are two things I want to do.

1. I want to share a few of my own thoughts on why and how to take up Maass’s challenge to start (or continue) writing not just fiction, but life-changing fiction.

2. Because I want everybody everywhere to read this book, I’m giving away 10 paperbacks to random winners. Scroll to the bottom of the post to enter using the Rafflecopter widget. Winners will be selected at the end of the week. If you don’t win, please find a copy somewhere else and read it! You gotta pinky promise.

5 Starters for Writing Life-Changing Fiction

There are so many different kinds of stories—everything from heroes’ journeys to stream-of-conscious mirrors of prosaic days, from fantasies to exposés, from comedies to tragedies, from genre mashups to literary tomes. There’s something for every one of us at every moment of our lives. Every single type of story has within it the potential seed to absolutely transform at least one of its readers.

Those are the stories I want to read and watch. They don’t come along very often, but when they do, they are nuclear.

I would like to write these stories as well. (Even if the only reader who is changed is me, I’d still be pretty happy with that.) To that end, here are some ideas I’ve mulling on, some of which coincide with those presented in Maass’s book, others which were catalyzed for me by the book.

1. Write With Honesty and Self-Awareness

It’s not stories that change people’s lives; it’s the truth. When stories speak truth, it’s like they’re puzzle pieces fitting into inner holes the audience didn’t even realize were there. There’s a line in Jonathan Latham’s essay in Light the Dark that talks about how when you encounter something true, it doesn’t feel like you just learned something new. Rather, it feels like you suddenly remembered something you knew all along.

The only way to write truth so powerful it gives readers that dichotomous sense of coming home to a place they’ve never before visited is by daily doing your utmost to clear away your own inner fuzziness. Cognitive dissonance, defensive egos, and repressed emotions are things we all deal with that inevitably muddy our thinking. As human beings, we bear the responsibility to try daily to do a little housecleaning. As writers, that responsibility is doubled. When asking readers to suspend disbelief, we are implicitly asking them to believe we will share with them something true. That’s a contract of trust.

2. Write With Humility and Humor

But let’s not be pompous, shall we? Every day for me is a discovery of some life-truth that astounds and excites me. I want to share every one of those truths with every single person I can. But even in the midst of my own enthusiasm (and, sometimes, overweening pride at my unprecedented cleverness), there’s a part of me that knows full well not all my truths are going to be interesting to others. Indeed, not all of my truths are really true. Today’s certainty may turn out to be tomorrow’s mirage.

If, in writing, we accept the terrible responsibility of speaking truths to our neighbors, then we also do well to acknowledge our own unsuitability for that role with more than a little self-deprecation. I want to tell the truth; I want to change your life. But, c’mon, I’m just a struggling schmo too. Very likely, that’s the greatest truth I’ll ever know or share.

3. Write Actionable Fiction

As a reader and especially a viewer, I spend an inordinate amount of time preemptively bypassing stories that seem hellbent on sending me to bed with a downer. I love incisive, hard-hitting, even dark fiction—but not if it gives me dog-breath from the bad taste in my mouth.

Maass nailed it when he wrote:

Some people may read fiction to be frightened, but they never read it to be brought down. They may wish to be challenged, but they don’t want to be crushed. They may read for amusement, but they still have heart. They do seek an emotional experience, as I’ve said, but they also want to come away feeling positive.

I think of some of my favorite stories—The Great EscapeThe Book ThiefGladiatorWuthering HeightsBlack Hawk Down, True Grit—and I’m rather surprised to realize how dark they all are, how most of them end in quantifiable tragedy. And yet… and yet. What these stories have to say about the world is anything but tragic. They tell hard truths, but in the end those truths feel triumphant.

The insight I find most poignant in Maass’s quote is that we should be striving to write actionable fiction. In the same way copywriters are taught to end with a call to action (something people can immediately respond to after hearing about the benefits of the advertised product), fiction writers should also consider what the end of a story may be encouraging readers to do in their own lives.

This does not mean ending with some blatant moral that tells readers to go out and make the world a better place. But we all know the feeling of inspiration found at the conclusion of the kind of story that very well just changed our lives.

This call to action is most important in stories that tell dark truths. Otherwise, the message is “roll over and die.” Stories of injustice, stories of horror, stories of death—they should be about more than just injustice, horror, and death. They should be about what we can do about these tragedies in our own lives after closing the back cover of the book.

4. Write to the Find the Best of Yourself

When you read your own stories, who do you see? It can be hard to identify the person peeking out from between the lines. But take a hard look. If the person you see has been honestly represented, then very likely she’s not a perfect person. She may be full of rage, pain, and fear. She may be downright scary. That’s okay.

But don’t leave it at that. Don’t let your fiction be nothing more than a place to vent all the hard parts of being you. See if you can’t also find the best of yourself looking back at you.

Maass again:

This may sound like I’m in favor of pandering to readers, but I’m actually appealing to the good, positive, and inspiring person called you. Don’t give me easy reading; give me the best of you. When you do, it becomes the best of me, too. Do you believe that it cheapens fiction to make it humane, heart grabbing, filled with goodness? You are not alone in that belief, but I disagree.

The best of you is not some fake version of fairy-tale perfection. The best of you is that enraged, hurting, fearful person who rose above herself and found change. That’s the person I want to know when I read your stories, because that’s the person who is going to inspire me to rise as well.

5. Write Fiction That Hopes

Sometimes it’s hard to even know for sure which stories have changed your life. Sometimes they don’t obviously change us until long after we’ve read them. But sometimes you know.

This summer, I had the opportunity to watch the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings movies on the big screen as part of a “flashback cinema” program at my local theater. Over the course of three weeks, I sat through all 11 hours and 22 minutes. As a kid, I remember the news gushing about how “life-changing” the films were. For me, this time, they were. It felt like an incredible to gift to get to experience this particular story in this particular medium at this particular time in my life. Samwise Gamgee tells us “there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it’s worth fighting for”—and, just like that, my life is changed.

You can change the world with stories of of truthful darkness or even despair. But I can’t help but believe, in agreement with Maass (and Sam), that it is much better instead to choose a different catalyst of change—the catalyst of hope:

You are writing to show us how things are, but aren’t you also writing to show us how things can be? Your current novel is not just a report, right? It’s a vision. It’s a gleeful celebration of what is hard, important, hopeful, and beautiful about life.

***

There are so many reasons to love stories. And as humans, we do—we truly do—love stories. Speaking at least for myself, I think the single greatest reason I first fell in love with stories, and continue to follow them even to this day as the guiding stars of my life, is their power to change me. If a story creates no impact in my life, then I find I am invariably disappointed on some level. I want to be changed. I want every day to be a transformation. That is why I read, and that is why I write.

And that is why I want you to read Donald Maass’s inspiring challenge to write stories of depth and meaning. Be sure to enter the giveaway below. I leave you with a final quote:

Novels that are truly grand, generous, and confident do not come along very often, but why can’t such novels be yours every time?

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! What’s a story that changed your life? How has it inspired you to want to write life-changing fiction? 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. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout changed how I look at people, but it also changed the way I write characters who are flawed. Highly recommend!

  2. Ranee Tomlin says

    I read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” when I was ten and learned about prejudice, courage, integrity, and more. I’ve been reading all my life, and I’ve still never encountered a book that changed me so profoundly.

  3. David Sofi says

    Perhaps the most impactful, early read that moved the rudder on my life journey was Atlas Shrugged. There have been many after that. Currently I am reading and rereading every Lee Child story in the Jack Reacher series.

  4. Ms. Albina says

    I have read Anne of Green Gables, The hobbit, and the lord of the rings.
    love the Anne of Green Gables movies.

    One book I have not read yet is Art of racing in the rain.
    I saw the movie.
    I love your books. I also like The Tail of the Emily Windsnap book series.
    Who is your favorite character in the Lord of the Rings or The hobbit?
    How many books are you going to be writing?
    For character profile how long do you do it?

    • Ms. Albina says

      I felt with Anne Shirley about having a blossom friend and not liking Gilbert gylth at first. I am glad that married.

  5. Station Eleven truly showed me how to put the humanity into strange situations.

  6. Johnny O'Sullivan says

    The Mayor of Casterbridge was the first novel we read in high school that discussed fate and free will. Blew my mind.

  7. The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold changed my life. I am the complete opposite demographic from the middle-aged, experienced, male hero but he is one of my heroes for the way he handled immense responsibility and continued doing his best against impossible odds. His story has inspired me through incredibly hard times. It’s actually almost embarrassing how much I look up to a fictional character.

  8. I read Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye when I was thirteen and it changed not only the way I see myself but also the world around me.

  9. There are way too many books in this post that I need to find time to read! Thanks again for blowing my brain…and inspiring my creative sparks! Light the Dark, all of Maas and your books added to the TBR!. 😉

  10. Joanna Johnson says

    The Phantom Tollbooth absolutely changed how I view the world, especially the mundane elements of life’s day to day. What I really gained from it, as a child, was to enjoy every day for what it brings you, and there are so many ways to find interest in even the mundane.

  11. Ender’s Game changed my view of people/characters (real life and fiction). I could relate to Ender to such an unbelievable degree. Such a masterpiece! 🙂

  12. I recently read the Lord of the Rings Trilogy for the first time, and have watched the first two movies… I’m rather dreading that third one, to be honest, because I know it will get so much worse before it gets better, and even knowing the ending I often mirror Sam’s monologue “How could the end be happy.
    How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad happened?” But, honestly, it is a series I would watch again today. I was ready to rewatch Fellowship of the Ring as soon as I finished, because it resonated with where I was in real life. With their world, and mine, growing troubled, there has been so much for me to learn and glean. “This Is my Father’s World” is even incorporated briefly into the theme music… Perhaps inintentional, but this musician caught it. That melody, with it’s assurance that “although the wrong seems off so strong, God is the ruler yet” really struck me to the heart. Isn’t that what Lord of the Rings is all about? Or at least, one of the many things?

    “Frodo: ‘I wish the Ring had never come to me. I wish none of this had happened.’
    Gandalf: ‘So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given to us. There are other forces at work in this world, Frodo, besides that of evil. Bilbo was meant to find the Ring, in which case you were also meant to have it. And that is an encouraging thought.'”

    If I could one day write a story with that sort of intention and impact… I don’t know… my heart might explode with happiness. 😊

  13. C. S. Lewis’s ‘Narnia’ series has rooted my life in what is important. As did Randy Alcorn’s ‘Safely Home’. Live your life in light of eternity. Making choices now that will impact others. Of course this only happens as we make the decision to follow ‘Aslan’. Without his power and love, we won’t make much of an impact.

  14. A story that changed my life is the game Xenogeas with its main message of humans being inherently flawed an needing the help of one another. The writers behind had not only deep insight about mankind but strong compassion as well. It also blew my mind by how many storylines and themes it tackled while also building a world with a staggering scope and history. I discovered the Enneagram system from that game which helped me understand myself a lot more. I was also impacted in the sense that I want to create something as compelling as that game.

  15. The Fionavar Tapestry was the first Fantasy that really made me visit another world. I still re-read it once a year, and it still moves something inside like most stories never have been able to do.

  16. Lisa Anderson says

    A story that changed my life was Safely Home by Randy Alcorn. It was so actionable and revealing about a people group I’ve only heard about on the news.

  17. The Lord of the Rings is the series that made me fall in love with fantasy and want to be a writer.

  18. Tammy Travis says

    Any of the Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys books.
    I visited the public library almost every day. These books instilled a love of reading and adventure.

  19. i just returned from Donald Maass’s workshop on the Emotional Craft of Fiction. If you have the opportunity to attend one of the sessions, do so. Now that heard his talk, I’m going to be forced to reevaluate my WIP in light of what I learned there.

  20. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell

  21. Auralia’s Colors, my absolute favorite fantasy novel and the book that made me want to write, changed my life because it showed me prose could be beautiful, and it showed me that I could change the world with art. Highly recommend it!

  22. Roald Dahl’s books changed my life. They taught me I don’t have to hide my quirkiness when I write (or even at all) 🙂

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