All too often, authors get mired in the details of a story, trying to cram everything in and make all the pieces fit. Characters are then seen only as individuals, so they often unintentionally overlap each other’s dramatic functions. The genre is depersonalized so that the author trying to write within a genre ends up fashioning a formula story and breaking no new ground. The plot becomes an exercise in logistics, and the theme emerges as a black and white pontification that hits the audience like a brick.
What’s more, you have days, months, perhaps even years to prepare your story to exude enough charisma to sustain just one 2 or 3 hour conversation with your readers or audience, and they expect all that effort to result in a tightly packed story holds their interest, transports them to a world of imagination, and also makes sense along the way.
One of the best ways to pump that kind of energy and detail in your story is think of your story as a person you’ve invited to dinner, and to let you story tell you all about itself over the meal.
Here’s how it might go. Let’s call your story “Joe.” You know that Joe is something of an authority on a subject in which your are interested. You offer him an appetizer, and between bites of pate, he tells you of his adventures and experiences, opinions and perspectives.
Over soup, he describes all the different drives and motivations that were pulling him forward or holding him back. These drives are your characters, and they are the aspects of Joe’s personality.
While munching on a spinach salad, Joe describes his efforts to resolve the problems that grew out of his journey. This is your plot, and all reasonable efforts need to be covered. You note what he is saying, just an an audience will, to be sure there are no flaws in his logic. There can also be no missing approaches that obviously should have been tried, or Joe will sound like an idiot.
Over the main course of poached quail eggs and Coho salmon (on a bed of grilled seasonal greens), Joe elucidates the moral dilemmas he faced, how he considered what was good and bad, better or worse. This is your theme, and all sides of the issues must be explored. If Joe is one-sided in this regard, he will come off as bigoted or closed-minded. Rather than being swayed by his conclusions, you (and an audience) will find him boorish and will disregard his passionate prognostications.
Dessert is served and you make time, between spoonfuls of chocolate soufflé (put in the oven before the first course to ready by the end of dinner) to consider your dinner guest. Was he entertaining? Did he make sense? Did he touch on topical issues with light-handed thoughtfulness? Did he seem centered, together, and focused? And most important, would you invite him to dinner again? If you can’t answer yes to each of these questions, you need to send your story back to finishing school (a re-write), for he is not ready to entertain an audience.
Your story is a person. It is your child. You gave birth to it, you nurtured it, you have hopes for it. You try to instill your values, to give it the tools it needs to succeed and to point it in the right direction. But, like all children, there comes a time where you have to let go of who you wanted it to be and to love and accept who it has become.
When your story entertains an audience, you will not be there to explain its faults or compensate for its shortcomings. You must be sure your child is prepared to stand alone, to do well for itself. If you are not sure, you must send it back to school.
Personifying a story allows an author to step back from the role of creator and to experience the story as an audience will. This is not to say that each and every detail in not important, but rather that the details are no more or less important than the overall impact of the story as a whole.