As some of you know I have long been submitting to the L Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. I even have a fancy certificate saying I won 4th place a few years back. But those days are drawing to an end with rapidity as my book sales continue to grow. Soon I won’t qualify and be left to the ashes of yesterday. Wait, what the hell am I saying?
Sure, I won’t qualify, but the stories will continue to crank out until arthritis takes my hands! I received some good advice from the contest director and thought I would share with all of you. Enjoy.
Read on, my friends. Read on.
For some authors, it is enough to try to make big bucks, but most of us would like to deliver a powerful message at times, too—something that carries extra meaning in our lives, something profound. Doctors studying the neuro-science of storytelling go so far as to suggest that a story doesn’t really work unless it also surprises and educates the audience. This is something that I noted years ago while judging Writers of the Future. I would sometimes find a story that was gorgeously written but which didn’t touch upon topics that had meaning in the real world. I would send them in to the judges to see what they thought, and every single time, the gorgeously written story would lose to other stories that weren’t written as well but which had greater depth. So how do you write a story that is profound? Here are a few things to think about. 1. Does the story present a theme? In other words, does it touch on topics that people deal with on a regular basis and argue about? Those gorgeously written stories that I mentioned will often have intriguing characters, fantastic settings, and powerful prose, but in the end the story feels as if it is weighed down by theatrics, lacking a heart and soul. In the great stories that we read, we begin them thinking that the story is about someone else. But through the course of the story, we become personally involved. On a subconscious level, we actually live through the story. When we reach a point where the theme touches on aspects of our own lives, intersects with our own concerns and experience, that’s where the story takes on import for us. It becomes meat, food for the soul. We realize, it’s about us, on some level. 2. Does the story present a viewpoint that the reader hasn’t considered before? Very often, observations that seem mundane to one reader will feel profound to another. Profundity is measured on a sliding scale. In other words, a story isn’t profound to everyone at the same level. For example, I went to see the movie War Room at a church social last night. It presented the argument that “When you can’t solve a problem, pray.” I’m sure that to a person who hasn’t heard that message before, it might seem profound and life-changing. But to others who are deeply religious, it might seem a bit ho-hum. In particular, young readers can often be touched deeply by stories that older readers dismiss, simply because the younger reader doesn’t have a wealth of life experience to draw upon. Thus, the themes in Harry Potter (on how to find a friend, keep a friend, and how friendships deepen) might seem a bit trivial to an adult, but be deeply nourishing for a child. 3. Does the tale present an actual argument, thoughtfully taking into account opposite points of view? Very often, writers who are eager to push a certain agenda will not be aware that they’re being dogmatic. They’ll present an idea as incontrovertible truth, when in fact there are good arguments both for and against it. For example, what if you wrote a book in favor of gun control? You know what I mean: if we only took guns away from everyone in the US, we wouldn’t have so many killings. You’d be right, of course—in your dreams. I could present arguments for the pros and cons for hours, and I know gun-rights advocates who would tear your half-baked tale to shreds. 4. Does the tale offer an ingenious solution? An ingenious solution to a problem isn’t just one that the average person hasn’t considered, it’s one that no one has considered. Stories that are profound come from writers who think outside the box. Sometimes, the ideas are completely innovative, and maybe even seem to defy logic. 5. Does the plot of the tale that you are telling seem to validate your resolution? In Dicken’s classic tale A Christmas Carol, he proposes that Mr. Scrooge can only attain true happiness by sharing his worldly goods. Mr. Scrooge himself, the old curmudgeon, voices his own arguments against this notion eloquently at the start of the story, but then undergoes an education of the heart, mentored by three spirits. The tale unfolds powerfully, and Scrooge’s experiences seem to “prove” the point that Dickens is making. But imagine for a moment that Scrooge didn’t have a change of heart at the end. Imagine that he woke up on Christmas morning, considered helping others, but instead went to sit by a warm fire and count his stacks of gold? What if he lived “happily every after” without effecting a change of heart. Would the story have worked as well? I think not. In short, as we write tales, those that sell best tend to touch readers because they present real problems and explore novel solutions to them.