One of the things I have come to believe is that stories which can't easily be summed up, whose themes are complicated or ambiguous, whose characters are neither good nor bad nor indifferent, are the stories that stay with us the longest and have the most power with readers. Stories that reduce life to simple, easily-digested and easily-described forces tend to be forgettable and aren't the stories that readers come back to or put into the hands of other readers. But stories that mirror the real complexity of the world sometimes take on lives of their own and work their way into the fabric of our culture. Myths do this, and if you look at myths you will see that they are generally messy and morally indeterminate. The plays (especially the tragedies) of Shakespeare do this, with their unexplained bursts of violence and their protagonists who are both hero and devil.
Where, you might ask, is all of this coming from? Well, I am writing a synopsis of my novel Cocke & Bull. I've never had the scintillating pleasure of crafting a synopsis before, but I figured it couldn't be that hard. After all, I know the story pretty well and I have my outline so how difficult can it be to flesh out my notes into a one-page narrative of the narrative?
It turned out to be harder than it looked, because while the story is fairly straightforward and the character arcs are easy enough to describe, the meaning of the dramatic action is ambiguous. Why do my characters do the things they do? Well, it's complicated. How do my characters feel about each other and themselves? Well, it's not really clear and it depends, you know, it really depends. The more I narrow the focus of the discussion about the story, the less powerful the story seems.
You know how, when you're in grammar school English classes (and sometimes when you're in university-level English courses), the teacher tries to get you to come up with a one-sentence statement of a story's themes? I don't care what your one sentence is; any decent story is going to be poorly-described by it. With a good teacher, those "theme sentences" might lead to a smart discussion of the story, but the discussion of stories shouldn't lead to those reductionist one-sentence statements. Because a good story is rich and has multiple layers that cannot easily be described. A good writer examines her topics from many angles and shows those angles to the reader but never sums up or chooses which angle is best, especially which ethical or moral angle. A good writer sympathizes with his characters but doesn't shy away from showing when those characters do unsympathetic things.
A good story is not simple.
When I revise, there is a temptation to cut out anything that adds ambiguity to the story. There is a temptation to eliminate multiple meanings, to narrow, to remove vagueness, to cast everything as either/or and to make the actions, characters and themes easy to grasp. This is a temptation that I must resist, because if I give in to that temptation, the story will be emptied out, and much smaller than life. I don't mind writing a story that can't really be figured out once and for all. The truth, at least as I see it, is that life is difficult and messy and not readily summed up. I want my fiction to be the same way.
Which means that my synopsis will of necessity be a sort of one-dimensional discussion of my novel, but that's okay as long as I don't start thinking that the book should be as easy to grasp as the synopsis.