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What are you saying?

Updated: Jul 8, 2022

Never compose anything unless the not composing of it becomes a positive nuisance to you.

– Gustav Holst

I think many of us have been grabbed by an idea that won’t let us go – often to the point of getting in the way of our lives. Those ideas are the best kind – they’re the ideas that have embedded themselves into our soul, and the writing that comes from them is confident, because it knows the idea inside and out. Often these stories have something very meaningful to say. Good writing can also come from a simple desire to write; the idea grows – and beneath the story, we usually begin to share with the world some part of who we are and what we think.

This is one of the most important things for me about literature – the way that the reader expands their mind at the same time as they enjoy the story. To me, this is where effective showing, in balance with telling the story, really helps – a reader is taken out beyond their own immediate circle of what they know, what’s around them, what’s happened to them, and virtually experience something else. This gives us more sight of what might make other people behave the way that they do, what has happened in history that’s affecting us now, and what the other possibilities are for our lives. It shows us how complex human beings are. It helps us to think and to analyse.

The effect of being shown something outside of our own experience can stay with us for a long time. This new way of thinking is one of the reasons that dictators often go after the ‘intelligentsia’. But I digress.

Beginning with a message in mind

Does this mean that you need to begin your plan for your story by deciding what your big message is, and how this will teach your readers what you want them to know? Some great books have definitely taken this route. Dickens and others of his era wrote many books intended to showcase serious social issues, by giving the story of fictional people experiencing them.

But many of our books don’t start out that way – we may be more interested in spinning a yarn. But even if the meaning of your story is the furthest thing from your mind as you plot and plan, there will probably be something about how you’ve crafted some of your characters that resonates with your values. Who they are and what happens to them, or between them, is likely to display things that matter to you.

Sometimes you might base just a scene or a passage or a snippet of something that’s meaningful to you, such as the Vimes’s boots example below. Some writers keep notebooks for jotting these things down when they occur to them, and are mindful of when something that they’re thinking about could be useful.

Tuning in to your key theme

So how will you tune in to your key theme? When you go through your second or third draft, can you see an overarching message coming through without it being too blunt? Can you see small snippets that communicate some of your values to your readers? Can you say what you think the book is about? These are all good ways to reflect, which may lead to your giving your book some more depth. It may lead to your teasing out the theme more, to putting more ‘you’ into your work.

Happy writing, as always!

Further reading

I’m a bit of a Terry Pratchett fan. His ‘Vimes’s boots’ theory of economic unfairness, now being taken into account by the ONS, is a great example of an author getting meaning into a small part of their story – as described by this piece in the New Statesman.

This article describes how to put your message across without preaching.

My blog on the show and tell balancing act gives more insight into how ‘showing’ can really help readers experience what characters are experiencing.

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