Tell The Story You Need To Tell, Not The One You Think Readers Want To Hear

Recently, I sat at this trusty computer and thought, I’d really like to write something new. Something that will grab people’s attention. I wanted it–whatever it was–to stop them in their tracks, make them think, make them feel. Preferably, it would do all three of these things at the same time.

As I began composing the new piece, though, I ran into trouble. I couldn’t put my finger on what it was, but something about this fledgling story was wrong, its words ringing hollow in my writer’s ear and looking jumbled, to my reader’s eyes.

Then, just as I was about to close out of my word processor in frustration, it hit me. The story itself–about a magical kingdom with a maniacal boy-king at its head–was a fine idea. It had potential. I knew authors who could carry it off with ease. It’s just that none of those authors were… me. It wasn’t the kind of story I tell, and because of that it all came off sounding false when I would read back what I had written.

So the question then became: I know there’s some good writing in this piece. How can I salvage it?

That answer dawned on me almost immediately.

You can still use almost all of this writing, said a voice. My inner-editor? But instead of telling the story about the magical kingdom with the maniacal boy-king, tell the story of the author who’s trying to tell the story of the magical kingdom with the maniacal boy-king. In doing that, you tell your story, one that is unique yet universal.

It would be a story within a story.

Just in case you’re wondering, no, that isn’t the basis for the next big story I’m working on. That boy-king has never existed in my head until just now. I don’t tell fantasy stories about dragons or wizards or spells, either. There’s nothing bad about them. Don’t misunderstand me. (I’m reading Harry Potter right now.) I simply choose to leave them to people whose writer’s voices feel comfortable in those environments. I, personally, like to tell stories about characters I feel have been under-served in literature. The man the world sees as disabled, for example, who’s always just seen himself as normal and wished others would follow suit. The story of the grandfather who taught his handicapped grandson to fight for anything he truly wanted in life.

“Nothing’s going to come easy to you, but if you fight for what you really want, not a soul on this Earth can deny you.”

Maybe I’d tell the story of a hard-luck baseball team who finally gets to call themselves champions. The boy who read time-travel stories every night with his father as a child, only to develop the first workable prototype for time-travel. A ghost story with a twist at its end that the reader never saw coming.

Nott hat these types of stories aren’t told, but I feel comfortable telling them myself, so why not offer my takes on them?

There is something to be said for knowing what people are reading these days, for knowing what they want to read before they do, for “writing to market”. But I find myself, more and more, advocating another path.

Tell the story you need to tell, not the one you think readers want to hear. You stand to write truer prose with much more heart behind your carefully chosen words that way.

Write What You Know

Today, I wanted to confront the most overused writerly idea and expression of all overused writerly ideas or expressions. That, as the title indicates, would be write what you know.

It’s the simple assignment many teachers give their charges when they’re first exposed to the joy of writing. “Tell me about your vacations,” they’ll say at the beginning of a school yeaer. “What did you do? Write it all down for me.”

That is writing what you know.

But to carry that idea into creative writing doesn’t always work. It can, but it doesn’t always. For example, there’s no way J.K. Rowling is personally acquainted with a boy wizard who plays quidditch. She made that all up. She didn’t know it before it became something, fashioned out of the building materials present only in her imagination, and set down in paper and ink to stand for all time.

Every novel is going to have autobiographical elements. Even Potter. Rowling has said Hermione Granger is a representation of her. Every writer will write what they know, to an extent. But a lesson all writers must learn is when to break away from the autobiography of it all and add in the right mix of fictional elements.