Stories shape the ways we think, the things we do, and the way we understand the world. How will your story impact your readers?
There’s something I believe about storytelling, something that drives me as an editor to do the work that I do, something that makes me value every single story writers send me. And the more that I read stories, and the more I work with writers to help them craft stories they love and that readers love, the more convinced I become that this is true.
Here it is: I believe that humans communicate through story.
We communicate how to exist in the world, what it means to be human, through stories.
And because this is how we communicate, I believe that stories and storytelling are absolutely critical for us as human beings and for our society.
Your Stories Are a Gift to Humanity
That might sound like I’m treating stories a little like didactic tools, but I really think it’s true.
I truly believe that stories are the vehicle through which we illustrate how to survive, how to care about each other and how to take care of each other, how to love, how to protect ourselves and others, how to solve the major problems that we face, whether that problem is our own mortality or injustice in the world or something as small as a stubbed toe.
For every problem you’ve ever faced, we have a story somewhere in the world to help you navigate it.
And when we encounter new problems that we don’t yet have stories for, we tell new stories. Or, we take the old truths we know from the old familiar stories and we retell them into new contexts.
I believe this is one of the highest and best powers of storytelling and one of the most important callings upon writers: you are invited into a legacy as old as language itself, a legacy of crafting stories that help us to live better.
And this belief is honestly what gives me so much joy and pride in the honor of the work that I do.
I get to help visionary writers who have stories and ideas that they want to communicate with others. Stories that can make us better. Stories that can inspire us to action and to change and to growth. Stories that show us how to live in ways that are good and true and honorable.
I get to help those writers craft those stories in a way that works, in a way that impacts their readers and so impacts the world.
Sometimes, when I’m working with a writer one-on-one, I’ll tell them, “This story that you’re writing is a gift to the world.”
And I truly believe that.
Any particular book might never make it onto the New York Times best-seller list. It might not be read by a million people around the world. It might not get all the applause and accolades that come with the big awards.
Still, for every reader that it does touch you have created a gift that can positively impact someone’s life in a way they will remember forever. There is so much power in that.
What Is Your Story Communicating?
So today, I want to talk about what you’re communicating to your readers through your story.
What impact do you want your book to have on readers?
What ideas do you want your readers to take away?
If your story communicates information about how to be human in this world, what is it communicating?
What I’ve Learned from Stories
Let me tell you about some of the stories that have communicated something to me:
From Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery, I learned that beauty and joy can be found all around us, in the simplest of things and the loneliest of circumstances, if we’re only willing to see it.
From Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow by Gabrielle Zevin, I learned that friendship is incredibly fragile, and yet somehow, it can always be reborn.
From Looking for Alaska by John Green, I learned that sometimes, bad decisions have terrible consequences, but if you forgive yourself and others, you can lessen the suffering and find life on the other side of grief.
From The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, I learned that life is meaningful and satisfying because of the marks we leave in the world and in the people we love.
From A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik, I learned that even the tiniest acts of exploiting others cause harm that will compound to destroy us all.
And from The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune, I learned that differences aren’t something to be feared, but celebrated.
Come for the Story, Stay for the Heart
To be clear: I didn’t pick these books up with the intent to learn a lesson. I didn’t read them thinking, what truth is this story trying to teach me? I didn’t choose to read them in order to hunt down a hidden message from the author.
I picked each one because it looked like a story I’d enjoy. And I did enjoy every one, and if you’re looking for some book recommendations from me, there you go.
But when I look back on these titles, when I think about why they’ve stuck with me, what they mean to me, and why I find them so powerful and compelling, these are the ideas that come to mind. These are the ways in which these stories have influenced me and the way I see the world.
And I don’t think any of this was an accident. I am willing to bet that every single one of those writers knew what they were creating. They knew what they believed, the ideas they wanted to explore, the truths they wanted to communicate, and they very intentionally layered that into their stories.
Author and Reader Make Meaning Together
Now, if I walked up to Naomi Novik or TJ Klune or John Green right now, told them the same line about their books that I just told you, and asked them if that’s exactly what they meant when they wrote their stories, would they say I got it exactly right? Would they say that they were thinking the very same thought in the very same words all the way through their writing process?
Probably not. Because this work of meaning-making is a collaboration between the author and the reader.
When Naomi Novik and TJ Klune and John Green wrote their books, they each created a world that was shaped by the idea they were exploring. And when I opened their books and read them, I stepped into that world with all my own ideas and experiences and beliefs and all the other stories I’ve ever consumed.
And when I finished each book and formed my thought about what it means to me, the meaning I found was shaped by both what each author created and what I brought to the story myself.
Every individual who interacts with your story will bring themselves to that experience, and they’ll take away meaning unique to them. That’s how art works. And it’s such a beautiful thing.
But the thing is, I am able to draw meaning out of those stories because those authors intentionally put meaning into those stories.
Sure, the meaning I find might not be articulated in exactly the same way they were thinking when they wrote their books.
But they did know what they were doing. I’m sure of that.
And it’s because they knew what they were doing that I’m able to find meaning myself.
When Should You Discover Your Story’s Meaning?
Now, you might know what you’d like your story to mean before you start writing your first draft. I don’t know that it’s possible to know everything about what your story truly means before you write a draft.
But I do think it’s worthwhile to think about what you’d like your story to communicate before you start writing.
So if you’re wondering when you should figure this out, that’s part of my answer—you can start thinking about this right from the very beginning and write down anything that comes to mind.
But I think it’s really important to identify what you’d like your story to communicate once you get to the developmental editing stage.
Once you have a draft and you know where the story is going, you have more than enough information to draw out the meaning your story is exploring. So at this point, your challenge is to articulate that meaning for yourself.
What is it that you want your story to communicate?
What do you hope readers take away from it?
What do you want to leave them thinking about long after they close the book?
What does your story illustrate about the way you believe the world works and how we humans can exist within it?
Why is that important to you?
You Must Have a Point
It’s not your responsibility to make sure every reader takes away one single, precise idea from your story. If you wanted to unambiguously communicate one specific point with no room for alternate interpretations, you wouldn’t be writing a story; you’d be writing a persuasive essay.
But it is your responsibility to put an idea into your story.
If you don’t have a point, your readers won’t find a point. So it is up to you to make sure that you are intentional about what you were putting into your book.
Your Turn: What’s Your Story’s Point?
I invite you to do something that I think is really really fun and really inspiring and really rewarding, and that is:
Think about the point of your story.
Think about why this book is a gift to the world, about how this book is going to show us something about our existence as human beings in a world that can be really hard sometimes.
With any brainstorming exercise like this, I like to encourage you to write down many ideas. Write down five or eight or a dozen ideas for what you think your book might be about.
They might all be different, and you’ll have to choose the one that’s most interesting or relevant to you.
Or you might find after you make the list that you’ve written the same thing a dozen different ways—and that right there is a big clue that there’s something important you’re already trying to explore in your story.
And once you find one that you like, think about how your story illustrates that idea. Where are the places where we see that idea at play? Are there any places that undermine or challenge that idea?
The idea you land on, the one that you know is the true meaning of the story, will probably never be explicitly stated in your story. Sometimes a character might state the big idea directly, but usually it’s something that your readers will pick up on through the events that happen, the choices your characters make, and the consequences of those choices.
So this idea will be a tool in the background: the concept that guides you as you make intentional changes in your next draft.
Discover Your Story’s Hidden Meaning
Remember, it is the purpose of art for everyone to take away something different from it. But it is your purpose as a writer to be intentional about what you’re putting in.
I invite you to discover what it is that your story means to you so that you can create something that will mean a whole, whole lot to your readers.