I’ve decided, after much contemplation, to quit the Story a Day Challenge. I love the idea of it and I thought it would be really good to push myself to come up with quick plots and characters etcetera. The problem that I’m running into is that all the stories are basically just “shit that happens” with the occasional amusing (to me anyway) conversation between the characters. I’ve written eleven stories, one for every day up until now, and it’s not that any of them are bad - some of them are good and most of the are okay - it’s that I’m not really connecting to the stories. I'm writing random shit happening and there isn’t anything really engaging about it.
I’ve started a book called “Story Genius” and it’s talking about developing stories from “whys” and the character - who they are and who they’re going to become and why it is that what is happening to them matters. The author talks a lot about how a good story isn't about “what happens” in the sense of this battle or that hook up, but in the connection we feel to the story and the characters. She’s really got me thinking about a lot of my stories in the past and why some of them worked better than others. Because it isn’t usually the word choice or the sentence structure or the ability to write beautiful metaphors that make a book successful or that can certain contribute. It has to be more about how the author connects the reader to the story through the characters otherwise books like Twilight and Fifty Shades wouldn’t be half as popular as they are because in both cases, grammatically and stylistically, not very good.
I don’t know if you’ve ever read a James Patterson book. I like that man a lot because I think he does amazing things to promote literature, but I am not a big fan of his writing. I’m not a big fan of mystery books in general (my genre taste tends to lean more towards paranormal), and his sentences always feel really choppy to me which I don’t like. And yet, he’s one of the best selling authors of the last 100 years. So why is he still so popular? Because there’s something else appealing happening.
People always ask, “what’s your book/story about?” And we tend to answer in terms of the series of events that take place in the book. “A girl falls in love with a man with a dangerous secret and discovers a world she didn’t know existed.” But what’s the real point of the story, the moral if you will? What journey does the main character go through and why does it matter? And no story will matter to everyone but I think things like “even those we consider monsters can be worthy of love” are a little closer to what Twilight is about or maybe it’s “just because you don’t believe you’re anything special doesn’t mean that you aren’t” or maybe “Love and family always worth the risk.”
Before the US election I read articles saying how much less likely Harry Potter fans were to vote for Trump. Is it because the kind of people who vote for Trump are not the kind of people who read Harry Potter? It could be.
But I don’t think that’s the case. I think we read and we watch movies and TV shows and we tell each other stories because we’re learning something or we’re looking at something in a different way than our own and these stories become part of us if we’re really engaged with the character. I don’t necessarily mean that we have to like the character or want to be their BFF (for example, as fascinating as I find Scarlett O’Hara to be, I do not want her as part of my squad).
I’ve never heard anyone say, “I really enjoyed this story! I’m giving this four and a half stars. I would’ve given it five starts but the main character was a bit of a cardboard cutout and I didn’t connect with them at all.”
On the other hand, I bet you’ve read a review that went something like, “I loved the description of the book and the content but I just couldn’t get into this book for some reason.”
I would bet you a dollar that you have put down or been severely tempted to put down a book because “you didn’t really care about the main character.” And while sometimes that might be because you disliked the character, I believe it was more likely because they didn’t seem like a person (or alien or dog or whatever) so much as they seemed like a delivery box. As in, here’s all this stuff happening and I’m delivering it to you via this person shaped box - you can fill it with whatever characters you choose.
Have you ever read a story or watched a movie and just been like “wow, that was a lot of stuff going on there but I have no idea what it was about?” It’s probably because stuff happened but it didn't really mean anything to the main character personally - they weren’t tested, they didn’t grow (or the reverse as in “Breaking Bad”), and they weren’t shaped by the events in anyway. When we read stories, we’re looking for the effect that it had on the person, the lesson they learned because we want to learn from their experience. We want to have that experience and learn the lesson ourselves.
When we look at characters we’re looking for mentors - people who tell us their story and what they’ve learned. They are giving us the wisdom of their experience. The same way that I have learned a lesson from not being careful messing with a hot oven, I’ve learned things from Harry Potter too. Things like, “You must stand up to bullies. And if you stand up others will stand. And if you all keep standing, the bullies will fail.” And, “There are different kinds of wealth.” And, “Everyone has value.” And, “True friendships save your life” - something I’ve seen time and time again in my own life.
I don’t think that it’s people who like middle grade fantasy books who are not fans of Trump. I believe that those of us who loved Harry Potter came away learning the lessons Harry learned. Be brave, do your best, and aim to save the world.
If you’re still not convinced that the focus needs to shift from building a story based on what happens verses who this person is who life is about to be upended, thing about video games that have been turned into movies.
Video games classically make terrible movies and books (not that a few haven’t succeeded). Look at all the action! The adventure! The fun! How could that not be an awesome movie?
When you’re playing the video game, you’re the character. Oh sure there may be a little development or background but you don’t need a whole lot of that because you are the main character and you bring with you all the backstory you’ll ever really need and you have shit to do, man. You are on the adventure. You have goals to reach. You are engaged with looking for the clues and solving the puzzle.
Many writers have made the mistake of thinking that if the plot and the special effects are cool enough that they won't need to add much more to the characters than is already in the video game. When the movie gets to the screen though, suddenly the viewer is seeing someone else look for the clues and solve the puzzles and go into battles.
Let’s be real. Unless you care about that person, you don’t care if they solve it.
An example for me would be American Horror Story. I tried to watch the first season. I watched a few episodes but I didn’t connect with the characters. I didn’t like them or care enough about them to see if they lived and I didn’t hate them enough to hope that I would get to watch them die horrible deaths or somehow become better people. I had no interest in the plot whatsoever because I couldn’t make myself care about any of them.
Many writers have made the mistake of thinking that if the plot and the special effects are cool enough that they won't need to add much more to the characters than is already in the video game.
Lots of people talk about writing and just seeing where they end up but I think that idea is a lot like a road trip. You can go on a road trip and roll the dice to see which way you turn at different intersections and then see where you end up. I imagine that if you do that you’ll have fun for a little bit but it won’t be long before you get tired of it and you just want to be somewhere already or go home.
If instead you go on a roadtrip with a predetermined destination and map out ways to get there and possible sights to see along the way, you’re going to have a hell of a good time no matter if you have a flat tire here or there or run out of gas on a highway.
So for me, writing a random, “what if” story every day isn’t helping learn to build real, tangible characters and stories that really matter.
Not to mention that it’s also been super unsatisfying to jump from place to place each day and never really dig into these random people with random names that I’ve dropped into random situations.
The point of all of the above is this: the StoryADay challenge seemed like a good idea and I set off to do it with the best of intentions however, it is not serving me or the long term goals I’ve set for myself and as such I am releasing myself of this goal and giving myself the permission to move onto other challenges and experiences that will better suit the needs I have and the accomplishments I want to reach. I’m on a journey, and I thought this would be a good road but I can see now that it has taken me off course.