Monday, May 24, 2010

What You Can't Write About

I heard this idea the other day, and it struck me as useful. It deals with the idea of what writers CAN'T write about. I believe it comes from David Mamet's book Writing in Restaurants, but since I heard it second-hand, I can't say for sure.

So, what can't we write about?

According to this idea, we can't write about conflicts that generally apply to everyone. We can't write about aging, for example. Or homosexuality. Or poverty.

What can we write about?

We can write about choices that characters are making in the face of conflict.

I think this serves to focus our stories and simultaneously make them more emotional and easier to write. A book about aging will probably feel too flat. A book about a character trying to fight aging has the opportunity to carry more personal emotion. Instead of trying to write about the plight of the world, writing about the plight of a small set of characters allows a reader to connect better with the material. Making the subject a personal matter serves to anchor the story, both for the reader and writer.

Do you think about stories this way?

I think as I try to put meaning into my stories, I sometimes get caught up with the idea of trying to write a commentary on a subject. I'll include facts about poverty in third-world countries, or water contamination, or energy consumption. This is probably fine in small quantities, but I think one risks losing their reader if the characters and their journeys are replaced with statistics. Stories can educate readers about subjects without being only about those particular subjects.


  1. Definitely agree. I try to have larger issues in my stories but only as they effect characters. Otherwise it comes off as info dump or, worse, soapboxing (I made that verb up out of a noun but it's what I mean!)

  2. Another way I've heard that said is that a story isn't a story unless its happening to someone. A writer has to have a character and while some of the issues they deal with might be universal the story only addresses that character's involvement with the issue not the issue itself (yes, I had to put a little Plato in there)

  3. Yeah, "poverty" isn't a story, but "Davin Malasarn struggles against the poverty of his village to create a clean drinking-water source" is a story. You can write about "poverty" in a big-picture way, but that's an essay. Dickens veers into essay territory in some of his books (A Tale of Two Cities has sections that are essentially chapters on political science and history), but even so there is always the framework of a dramatic narrative. In my own work, I'm aware of (usually, I hope) whenever I'm talking about a larger issue, but I try to never lecture to my reader.

    Also, welcome to our 400th member, aleeza876!

  4. I think it's important to know where your character stands in the face of a conflict: the single mother of two trying to keep it all together isn't thinking about poverty as a theme or a condition. She's too busy doing the math to make Christmas work on $10.95.

    In conflict we're usually too involved at the moment to think of larger context. We're just trying to get out of the frying pan.

    It's easy to get my bias involved with my characters. I root for them. I love them. They're a bit like my children. But do I agree with them?

    There's an interesting issue here tying into character as wish fulfillment. Can you work with a character who holds diametrically opposite views from your own without painting them with your own preconceived notions? Can you really hate someone that different from your belief system once you've spent an inordinate time in their head? Or do all of our characters have to contain a large enough part of us that we want to spend so much time with them?

  5. I've always been a big fan of "smaller" stories, if that makes sense. Even with Lord of the Rings, Tolkien broke the huge epic up into small clusters, and each cluster dealt with an issue on a small scale. Then, looking at the book as a whole, you get everything weaving together to bring out these huge themes that don't feel forced or lecture-ish (at least to me).

    I don't deal with huge themes, really, so this hasn't ever been a big deal for me. However, I may work my way up to that, and Cinders deals with a lot of political issues, so it has been interesting to work with that to a degree, and stick to the narrative as well.

    Yay for 400 members on Lit Lab!

  6. Great post.

    There is no way to encompass the breadth of human experience (even on a specific topic like aging) in a single novel. Only by exploring this theme through individual characters can we make sense of its vastness.

  7. I think whatever we include has to impact our characters in some significant way. If not the writer comes across as preachy, and, as a reader, that's the kiss of death for a book. If I'm lost in the character's plight I hardly notice the author is teaching me about something.

  8. I'm a character driven writer, so I'm always focused on the emotional aspect of any situation. Hopefully, writing about how one character - or one specific group - deals with adversity will help a reader relate to the larger world, and their own small part of it.

    I like the way you put this - not taking on the bigger picture in general, but tackling one segment.


  9. Good post. LIFE is about the choices we make! Seeing how characters confront difficult choices always pulls me in. I think you can balance in "educational" stuff too if it is tied to the background of the story/chars.

    Congrats on the 400 followers!

  10. @ David Slayton: you said, "Can you work with a character who holds diametrically opposite views from your own without painting them with your own preconceived notions? Can you really hate someone that different from your belief system once you've spent an inordinate time in their head?"

    My answers are 1. yes, you can; and 2. Why do you need to hate them? I love all of my characters unconditionally, which is what allows me to have characters who make ethical choices I would not make. Even those characters who I would never wish to meet in real life, I love unconditionally.

    I think some writers use fiction for wish fulfillment, sure. I think that's likely to result in poor fiction.

  11. What do you mean I can't write about homosexuality? Shouldn't someone have told me that a bit sooner? Huh?

    Seriously though, it's all about the choices. Every decision has an impact, big or small. There might be easy choices to make, but that doesn't lesson the impact on a) the indivdual making the choice and b) the people affected, big or small, by that choice.

    I recently broke down a novel I wrote by choice/decision = impact to a) character, b) group of friends, and c) others. It was very interesting to map out the direct impact of choices.

    So, while homosexuality might play a part in the novel, I'm technically not writing about it.

    Great post.


  12. The big topics have all been covered on and on...that's why the nuance, or tiny piece of the story, or the different angle are the only things to write about.

  13. Tricia, if "soapboxing" wasn't a word before, it is now. Love it.

    Lady G, I couldn't help smiling at your comment about Tolkein making big themes smaller--Hobbit-sized, maybe?

    Excellent explanation of why "issue" books don't work.

  14. Anne: Yeah, hobbit sized! Hehe. That makes me smile. :)

  15. @ Scott -
    I most definitely agree and should probably have phrased that differently. I don’t think you can hate a character and still work with them, at least in any meaningful way.

    Familiarity with your characters doesn't breed contempt, it breeds that unconditional love. In a way, it’s like family: you love them regardless of fundamental differences in how you see the world. I love my villains. They are very disturbed people, but I tend to work with villains who have powerful motivations for their choices. They aren’t motivations I can agree with, but I do understand them.

    P.S. - I'm enjoying this discussion a lot, and where it's taking my thoughts on character development. Thanks Davin for the great post!


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