Over the last month I’ve rather enjoyed my foray into the surreal and the imaginative. My theme for this series was to embrace the dreams, the nightmares, the meditations, and the free-associative thinking that manifest our subconscious to us. We began with Sculpting Light, took a darker turn with Free Cleaning Service, had a sleepy stroll through a Deep Forest, and most recently meditated on childhood with Tico the Jester. As I suggested at the end of that last story, however, there has been another purpose in this series apart from exploring the workings of the subconscious mind. My other reason for conducting this series has been to craft stories where each had a different central focus. I briefly mentioned the need for these in my Cliché vs Story post, where I suggested that a timeless narrative often turns out better when focusing on the character’s experience, and then trusting the audience to empathize with that journey. Now that’s not always the case for a narrative, and certainly not the case for other types of story. Today we’ll break down a few of the most common focuses a story can have, the strengths inherent in each of their designs, and the examples I gave for each of these in my most recent stories.
To start off we’ll look at the opposite of what I recommended for narrative-driven stories. There are times where your singular and primary focus as a writer should indeed be the mind of the person reading your work. I don’t just mean that you write to elicit specific emotions from the reader, most every type of story will aim to accomplish that, but rather that you seek to incorporate your reader’s individual life experience as an actual element of your tale. Your work, as it lays on the page, is left unfinished and can only be completed by what your audience puts into it.
The story of The Lady, or the Tiger presents a jilted lover who holds the power to give the man who has spurned her either death at the paws of a tiger or else a life happy with the woman he prefers. What she chooses is not ever revealed, though, rather the audience is asked to answer the question of how it concludes. Why? Because the story isn’t really about the woman and what she would or would not do, it is about inviting every reader to look inside of themselves and answer what they would do in such a situation.
My first story of this series, Sculpting Light, was designed with the readers as its focus. It does not feature a specific question that I want the readers to ask themselves, but it was an invitation to them to take a journey into their own free-associative thinking. Throughout its body I try to awaken the reader’s subconscious by transitioning from one topic to another on a whim, striving for that familiar game of associations where the most tenuous of connections are enough to weave all manner of categories together. Then, at the end, I conclude with a single beam of light racing off into infinite space, but that was never meant to be a conclusion. It was meant to be an invitation, an opportunity for the readers to now ask themselves where they think that beam of light goes, or what it reminds them of, what it is like, or even what it is not like. I’ve shown you how my mind works, now how does yours?
Obviously the most common focus for a story is that of the character. The author spends time trying to really get to know the story’s protagonist and then ensures that every outcome is consistent with that protagonist’s principles and behavior. If the protagonist is to evolve in the story he or she must do so in a way that is believable, a way that feels warranted. The conclusion that the protagonist secures must be the one that is true to all that has followed before. If this is done well and the character’s arcs feel honest, then the anticipation is that the audience will be able to enter the hero’s shoes and feel every plight as if it was their own.
In Shakespeare’s Macbeth the morbid end that finds our main characters are only the ones that they have brought upon themselves. As Lady Macbeth pressed her husband to take life, so to she then feels pressed by guilt to take her own. As Macbeth was willing to attain a throne by the shedding of others’ blood, so to he was doomed to lose that throne by the spilling of his own blood. It simply was not in their nature to have the story resolve itself in any other way.
My short story Free Cleaning Service was a story that focused primarily on character above all else. Jim Morgan is so haunted by memories of what he’s done and seen that eventually he conjures up a manifestation of the very evil he has always feared would be led back to his home. Bit by bit he’s felt his soul being smothered by association with all that is dark in the world, and in the conclusion he awakens to a literal darkness and the entering of its agent of destruction.
Some stories set aside both character and audience, and instead try to capture the truths of an entire portion of the world. The focus here might be on a specific time, or a place, or an event. While it isn’t required, often these sorts of stories are written when an author is trying to capture the spirit of an era, intending for the audience to not lose sight of the lessons that were inherent to that environment. This could also be a story that challenges our concept of reality by presenting another far-flung world to which the reader comes as a guest.
At its core, Of Mice and Men is not really a story about its characters, it is about a time and a place, an experience in history. George Milton and Lennie Small are only provided as representations of the greater story that many people were living through during the Great Depression in America. The tale captures the atmosphere that pervaded that chapter of humanity, and the overwhelming frustration it brought that a man no longer seemed entitled to the sweat of his brow, that he may toil and try and do his best, but still be guaranteed nothing. The story is about an environment where everyone has a dream, a hope, or a plan, but the machinations of an uncaring world will crush them all alike.
In my story Deep Forest it was my intention to capture a mood more than anything else. I thought of a place that was rich and heavy and full of mysteries and ancient whispers, then I set about writing a story that captured it. Yes, there was a main protagonist, but she wasn’t present for the reader to get caught up in her as an individual, but just to serve as eyes and ears that let the reader feel that they were in that forest themselves. What thoughts and feelings might have been invoked in the reader by the piece wasn’t my main concern, either, really I just wanted them to be able to appreciate the Forest for what it was and that was it.
Another common type of story is all about examining a principle, a lesson, a concept, or an abstract idea. These could be allegories, fables, parables or moral lessons which seek to instruct, or they may simply be trying to capture one of the common human experiences, such as love, loss, hope, or dismay. In either case the form of the story is trying to give embodiment to a naturally disembodied concept, and their quality will be determined by how well they capture the true nature of that idea.
The Tortoise and the Hare, for example, is not really about either of its titular characters. Its sole focus is to communicate its underlying moral, slow and steady wins the race. Now once this principle is understood it will be up to the readers to identify which ambitions they have approached too vigorously and then burned out on, and how they might approach them with a more measured cadence. But this isn’t the same as writing with the Reader as the main concern, as this sort of inner dialogue comes about only by having the expression of the principle, not the Reader, as the measure of its success.
My most recent short piece, Tico the Jester, is my personal example of a story that had a concept as its central focus. In that tale the little girl and her toy jester are ancillary to the root examination of childhood innocence, its dependence upon ignorance, and the pattern of how it is lost in times of grief. I chose my characters for how well I felt they served these themes, but had I thought of a more fitting representation for childhood innocence I would have changed the entire setting and cast without a second thought.
The final focus for a story is that of the community. This is the ensemble piece where no single character carries the full meaning of the tale, but rather their united ripples merge into a single wave of significance. The purpose of this narrative may be to communicate an optimistic message of how an entire society unites to bring about some good greater than any one individual could accomplish, or it might be more somber in how it shows characters’ individual flaws accentuating one another to bring about some horrible tragedy that ought not to have ever been.
The Lord of the Rings is a story of an undertaking that is so massive that no one person could accomplish it alone. Certainly there is a sole ring-bearer, but from the start to the finish he is only able to succeed by being supported-and even literally carried-by an entire community of souls around him. More than that, his one quest is only a shadow of the greater struggle that is raging in all the world around, one in which every man’s soul is being put to the test for good to triumph over evil. The message of the story is that great things can be accomplished, but only by the concerted efforts of thousands of individuals contributing as one.
My example for a community-focused story will come in the form of my next post on Thursday. It will be a pretty unusual looking community, and it will remain consistent with the dream-like meditative series we are about to conclude, but it will nonetheless have at its core an examination of how disparate characters combine for the benefit and destruction of one another.
In the end, it all really comes down to a question of who or what is your story being true to? Should your characters have this conversation, or should the plot take this turn, or should you detail the finer points of this setting? Yes, if it will be helpful to your subject, whether that be audience, character, environment, concept, or community. Indeed many of the decisions you have to face as an author will only be resolved when you have identified what it is your story must be true to.