This is from a post by Charlie Jane Anders at tor.com: 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.