Is the story about what it’s about?

This is from a post by Charlie Jane Anders at What the Original Star Wars Trilogy Teaches Us About Storytelling

I think one decent litmus test for any story is: is it about what it’s about?

This may sound kind of silly—how can a story not be about what it’s about? Except that I think this happens fairly often, to some extent. It’s one of my pet peeves, and it’s something I think about a lot in my own work. I spent years learning how to make my stories be about what they’re about, and this is still something I struggle with.

Here’s what I mean: a lot of stories neglect their crux or their core issue, getting distracted by shiny objects or fun digressions. I’m not just talking about stakes, or plot stuff generally—I’m talking about the heart of the story, the thing that we keep coming back to and obsessing about. The emotional core.

Anders uses the original Star Wars movies to talk about this idea. Then:

1) What are the characters asking themselves and each other? What is/are the problem(s) or philosophical issue(s) that they worry about and debate and fuss over? Put another way, I think a really good scene is worth its weight in gold, and when I write a scene where the characters are talking about something and they seem really alive and present and I can feel their personalities shining through, I think to myself: I should find ways to get them to talk about that thing more, whatever it was. It’s obviously something that cuts close to the bone for these people.

2) What does the ending come down to? If the final moments of the book come down to an omelette-making contest in which the hero proves they can make the best omelette in the world, then I probably need to see the hero practicing making omelettes before this—but I might also want the hero to worry about whether they’re ever going to be a good enough omelette-chef, and what exactly is the nature of a perfect omelette? Do we judge omelettes by cohesion, shape, fluffiness, some other criterion? Is there any such thing as a Platonic ideal of a perfect omelette? 

These two points interest me because I think the first really captures something. I have seen quite a few people say that in some of my books, the conversations are more intense than the battles, and I like that! I hope the most intense conversations do seem AS intense as most of the action scenes, though maybe not every possible action scene. I mean, I sure hope the conversations hold the readers’ interest, and no doubt that depends on the reader, but that’s definitely the target I’m trying to hit. Let’s say that I want some of those conversations to capture something true.

But the second point here, I’m not sure I quite understand it. Or I’m not quite sure the part in bold is capturing this idea. What IS this idea? Let me re-read that and think about it for a second. Okay, maybe …

2) Does the ending carry weight?

I’m not sure that’s it. How about this …

2) Does the ending resonate?

I think maybe that’s closer. I think Anders is saying here that the ending needs to matter all the way through the story so that when you get to the ending, the resolution resonates with important thoughts and conversations and events that have taken place on the way. That way the ending seems important and justified. I think that’s what I meant when I asked Does the ending carry weight?

This is a kind of foreshadowing, isn’t it? The most important kind. The author needs to arrange for that to happen. This is also like saying the author ought to keep the end in mind all the way through (or go back and make sure it seems that way). It’s also like saying The story needs to have a central theme and the ending needs to resolve that theme.

That puts both Anders’ points into one statement: The problems that matter to the characters need to revolve around a central theme and the ending needs to resolve that theme. Maybe it should be “problem” or “even philosophical problem” rather than theme; I’m not sure.

Regardless, if that happens, then the story is about what it’s about. That’s a nice phrase and I’m going to try to remember it.

Please Feel Free to Share:


6 thoughts on “Is the story about what it’s about?”

  1. Then, there’s a great deal of difference in how explicitly your characters can talk about your theme. Depends on character, theme, and situation. . . .

  2. This is an interesting question closely related to your recent discussion on what makes a satisfying ending. I think a book that lacks this can be enjoyable, can be good, but it won’t be the kind of book that sticks with you in the long run or leads to you quoting bits of it to people. On the other hand, sometimes you can’t quote bits of an extremely satisfying ending because it’s so entwined with character growth and plot that it doesn’t make sense out of context. And, on the third hand, a book can try too self-consciously to be Deep and Meaningful and end up seeming overblown or formulaic.

    I am finding that some quotable moments I am thinking about are not endings. They are moments when a character’s experience resonates with some universal truth. Pratchett was particularly good at the kind of bit when a throwaway line suddenly opens up to a wider view. Bujold too. Which is, I suppose, related: the theme in the endings you are describing may connect this kind of truth with the specifics of plot and setting and character.

  3. OtterB, you are so right! LMB is especially good at that. When Ekaterin said to a younger woman, “Adulthood isn’t a good conduct prize they give you for being a good child,” wham, that just NAILED a significant truth for me. I don’t specifically remember lines like that from Pratchett, but I don’t doubt I’d recognize them if you mentioned one because he definitely pulled this off.

    I love, love, love a line like that whether it occurs at the ending or elsewhere — something that brings me to a halt because it so perfectly encapsulates something important.

    You’re also right that sometimes a great ending line can’t be taken out of context. At the end of The Book of Atrix Wolfe when the protagonist goes back down to the kitchens and says, “Tell me all your names,” it’s super powerful because until that moment the reader may not have consciously paid attention to the way everyone is nameless until the dire problem has been sorted out and then she says this and the whole story suddenly snaps into a different focus.

  4. Other Bujold ones that stick with me are the discussion between Miles and Aral about honor and reputation: “Reputation is what other people know about you. Honor is what you know about yourself. Guard your honor. Let your reputation fall where it will. And outlive the bastards.” (Aral goes on to say that having your reputation in shreds because you’ve done the right thing is merely annoying, but having a brightly burnished reputation when you’ve done the wrong thing is soul-destroying.)

    And from Penric and the Shaman, where the Brother god is encouraging the old ghost to come away from the world and the ghost asks if there will be good beer, “If there is beer, it will be very good. If there’s not, it will be because there’s something better.”

    I’d have to look for Pratchett because nothing is leaping up at me either.

  5. For pratchett, for me, it’s not so much single lines, as bits like Vimes boots theory or the bit about the number 1 dad mugs in the inquisition torturer breakroom. Things that clearly illustrate a previously unstated universal truth.

  6. I agree it may be more bits than lines from Pratchett. I was thinking of the Vimes boots theory too. Also thoughts about witchcraft, mainly from Granny Weatherwax but sometimes from the others – that a witch is someone who does what needs to be done, and of the importance of looking at what’s real. Also Granny and her sign about “Aten’t dead yet.”

    Here are a few quotes:
    “If you had enough money, you could hardly commit crimes at all. You just perpetrated amusing little peccadilloes.”

    “Colon thought Carrot was simple. Carrot often struck people as simple. And he was.
    Where people went wrong was thinking that simple meant the same thing as stupid.”

    “There were people who’d steal money from people. Fair enough. That was just theft. But there were people who, with one easy word, would steal the humanity from people. That was something else.”

    “No one is finally dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away—until the clock he wound up winds down, until the wine she made has finished its ferment, until the crop they planted is harvested. The span of someone’s life, they say, is only the core of their actual existence.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top