One human truth: what your story is missing

I walked out of Thane Burnett’s workshop on short feature writing at Wordstock on Oct. 2 feeling like a giant roadblock had  been removed.

My favourite subjects are ones that deal with systems, concepts — the idea of writing stories about people seemed, well, a little too maudlin for me. There are some writers who do it very well. I just  didn’t think I had the skill and the wisdom to take on the genre without verging into hackneyed territory. But then I wondered why my stories came out so bland, so newsy. How do I write the characters? The scenes? Why did they fail to illuminate something within me, in others? When I tried to add colour, it didn’t work out right. Like painting with an oil set for the first time, it’s very hard to succeed without a little bit of education.

So you want to write a story. Before anything, start thinking about what the one human truth in your story is – it’s in there somewhere – and once you’ve got that nailed down, the true shape of your story will emerge.

That’s how you get readers hooked in nine seconds.

What do I mean by a human truth? After sitting through Burnett’s workshop, I would say that a human truth is an idea, a theme that gets readers to recognize something about themselves — our common humanity.

This lesson was a turning point for me.  

I didn’t want to fill this post with basic style tips that your professors or writing instructors have drilled into your head since the start of first year. The aim of this post it to get you to think differently about writing. I’ve culled the points that really made a difference to me.

Listen carefully.
Put away the notebook and tape recorder and just have a conversation. Jot down notes here and there.

Thurnett recounted a story about a reporter who was assigned to interview a female mountain-climber, who had just come back from a trek. During the official interview, the reporter and the subject weren’t really connecting. Once the reporter got to the end of her scripted questions, she put away her notebook and they got to talking like two regular people. The reporter asked how she went to the washroom during the trek, being a lady and such. The theme of that story became how men and women have achieved parity in a lot of arenas and how change in others is still unlikely.

Sometimes we miss out in the obviously interesting points because we’re in journalist mode, trying to think about the right questions to ask. Interviewing someone is not the most natural thing in the world, but try to relax and be yourself.

Put away the notebook.
When you finish an interview, just write out the story from the top of your head.  The things that stand out in your mind are the things that will stand out to your readers. Trust your instincts. Not to mention this method makes the process go a lot faster. This is not a license to skip the fact-check stage. But for a first draft, it’s handy.

Hang out with your subject.
Do something with them: shadow them on their jobs, do their everyday chores with them. Get a feel for their lives. How does it compare to yours?

Think of archetypes not stereotypes.
An archetype is an ideal example of a person, a universally recognized symbol. A stereotype is an oversimplification. Huge difference.

Carl Jung wrote about archetypal narratives that shape individual human development. To learn more about this, try reading Joseph Campbell. I read The Hero With a Thousand Faces and it helped immensely. Or you can do the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test to discover what universal character traits you have. This personality test is referred to a lot by career developers, but the idea behind it was principally developed from Jung’s theories.

Colour is the story
Not just an extra.

Quotes are for emotion.
Don’t weigh down your story with them. Paraphrase instead. I find that over-attribution can make a feature story begin to sound like a news story. It’ll make a huge difference. Use dialogue instead. Tom Chiarella is a writer at Esquire and I think he writes dialogue really well. I’ve been meaning to find his book, Writing Dialogue. How apt.

You can use the same devices that fiction writers use. Just make sure that what you write is fact.

In the end, all stories are about people. Writing about the economy? Still about people. Private member’s bill? You got it. Who do these stories belong to? Everyone. How do you write a great story? Be a person.