Serving the Story

What does it mean to be a writer of fiction?  

Some may imagine that being a writer means that we get to make up and tell stories all day, every day.  They may not know what really goes into writing a story, a page, a paragraph, or a word.  As if it’s a magical process by which stories come through some mysterious and wondrous process, fully formed and born onto the page like a much-wanted baby, which then goes out into the world to grow into a bestseller, with movie option rights and a promised baby sequel and, if we’re really lucky, a baby prequel.  

Au contraire, mon frer.

serveMany times, we as writers stumble and fall numerous times while trying to complete even one novel.  We keep trying to tell the story as we imagined it, and therefore keep stumbling over our own ineptitude.  We tend to believe — at least in those early attempts — that we know best, that we’re the best and only reason the story is being told at all.  That’s a specific conceit of many beginning writers, and sadly, of a number of experienced writers, too.

One of the most difficult and frustrating things to learn in being a writer is that we exist solely to serve the story.  It is our master, our enemy, our BFF, and our evil stepchild.  It is the neighbor’s rabid dog, the boogeyman under the bed, and the case of food poisoning awaiting us at our next dinner party.  It makes us feel insecure, over-confident, and often embarrassed.  In fact, many times, I’ve called a story “dominatrix” in the way it toys with my affections.  But there’s nothing quite like nailing a perfect sentence or re-reading a scene we just finished and thinking, My gawd.  just did that!

But in the end, we are only serving the story.  The story is the reason why we became writers, so that we could forever serve the story.  It’s the question I ask a lot of my writing, and even moreso in other’s writing.

Does it serve the story?  

If it does not, ultimately, add to the story, it gets eliminated.  Or reconfigured and brought into the story in a different and fresh way.  Our conceit as writers is that every word that flows from us is precious.  It’s the gold ring in Tolkien stories.  We become emotionally attached to our words, and cannot bear to part with even one.  When trying to write to a specific word count — as for a contest or a submission — it torments us to have to go through our work and slash, slash, slash.  Sometimes its a very real, incredibly visceral pain to abort our word babies.  But it must be done because, it serves the story.  For our writing tends to define us, not the other way around.

We learn to listen to those nuanced story voices that float through our minds 24 hours a day.  Because once we learn to listen, we begin to understand the importance of story and every facet of storytelling.  It shows in the work of the writers we admire, and disappoints in the writing we know has been produced through impatience and over-eagerness, and ignorance of the story.

Always keep an objective eye on the things that serve a story well, and the things that derail all the hard work put into channeling the story onto the page.