I’m going to be presenting a session at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop on Friday, a session called “Writing Stories That Matter.” In preparation for that event, I had to think about exactly what I mean by stories that matter. William Faulkner, in his 1950 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, said, “. . .the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” Faulkner went on to say that writers should focus on “the old verities and truths of the heart, the old universal truths lacking which any story is ephemeral and doomed.” The human heart in conflict with itself. The old verities and truths of the heart. Notice how each of these statements locates us in character and reminds us once again that plot is always in service of characterization. Weave whatever sequence of events you choose. Without multidimensional characters, often made up of contradictions, storylines may linger for a while and then fade from our memories because writers have failed to recognize that plot exists because of the contradictory layers of a character making choices and then facing consequences. Plot exists, we might say, to reveal truths about characters that are present from the beginning but submerged. The pressure that plot exerts causes these truths to rise by the end of the narrative.
So when I say stories that matter, I’m thinking of stories that leave an impression on a reader, stories to which readers have an emotional connection, stories that form a connection between writer and reader, stories that are memorable. The contradictory emotions of our main characters can help in this regard, but for our characters to have complicated emotions we must be able to recall the times in our lives when we felt the human heart in conflict with itself.
What are those moments for you? Spend some time daydreaming, letting your memory call forth the incidents from your own experiences that you’ve never been able to forget. Notice how many of them revolve around someone doing or saying something that seemed out of character. Don’t neglect yourself as a character. What are the moments from your past that still haunt you? How many of those moments were ones you created by your own actions and/or words? Did dramatic irony ever come into play, which is to say, did you ever say or do something you thought would produce a certain result only to find you created an opposite result instead? The key is to recall moments that were emotionally complicated for you, moments when you felt opposing emotions simultaneously. These are the sorts of moments that make for memorable characters, and memorable characters almost always create unforgettable stories. I call these moments touchstone moments because even if I’m writing fiction I find myself tapping into them to feel the emotional complexity I want to transfer to my invented characters. In short, I tap into my own heart in conflict with itself in order to better understand the contradictory layers of my characters.
Sometimes we have to go about this in an indirect manner. One of my favorite writing activities that I’ve used in workshops for years is to ask people to recall pairs of shoes they remember wearing when they were kids and then to do a freewrite beginning with, “I was wearing them the day. . . .” The key is to use the shoes to recall your own touchstone moments, those moments when you felt emotionally torn. Our characters carry such moments with them. Recalling our own emotional turmoil from the past—the times that held both love and hate, happiness and sorrow, right and wrong, etc.—can help us create characters with depth and stories that matter for the universal truths they dramatize.