WRITING BEYOND GOOD: THE ‘SO-WHAT?’ FACTOR
By Alison Balaskovits
In our ongoing series about increasing your odds of being published by Writing Beyond Good, Part I and The Sequel covered Creating Emotional Resonance by creating relatable characters, layering in concrete, physical detail, the power of specificity, and tapping into the emotion of a piece while you are writing it — without worrying about what your story means, for either the characters or for the reader while in the flow of writing. Instead allow meaning to emerge.
In fact, deliberately imbuing your work with meaning can have the unfortunate trying-too-hard effect of melodrama—AKA the after-school-special / Hallmark-channel-movie effect. Which is what Sam Goldwyn (the ‘G’ in MGM) meant when he said that movies are meant to be entertaining — if you want to send a message, call Western Union. Make no mistake, however, ‘meaning’ ultimately is crucial to the success of a story.*
*As always, for our purposes ‘story’ includes fiction and all narrative forms of non-fiction.
“The vitality of literary character has less to do with dramatic action, novelistic coherence, and even plain plausibility—let alone likeability—than with a larger philosophical or metaphysical sense, our awareness that a character’s actions are deeply important, that something profound is at stake, with the author brooding over the face of that character like God over the face of the waters.”
~ James Wood ~
As mentioned in my initial Writing Beyond Good post, most of the stories and essays submitted to journals are competently executed, interspersed with well-turned phrases, and often fine story telling . . . but sometimes missing from those perfectly good submissions is what Hunger Mountain fiction editor Barry Wightman calls ‘at-stake-ness.’ The so-what factor. Meaning.
If the protagonist’s goals are not met, what will happen? Are there potential consequences? What is at stake? The ‘what’ that is at stake is what gives your story meaning.
Because we don’t want to ‘send a message’ or layer meaning thickly over our words, we tiptoe in, taking for granted that readers will somehow intuit the answers to ‘so what’ or ‘who cares?’ That can make our work seem less important or interesting or relevant than if we are more explicit in letting our readers know why what we’ve written matters.
Here is where fiction differs from essay: In an essay, sometimes the best course is to simple state the ‘so-what’ factor. Explain the significance of your basic assertion, the implications beyond the points made in the essay. Let me give you an example.
Sharisse Tracey writes in her essay, “Please Don’t Kill My Son:”
“My adorable 5-year-old boy has been diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), autism, and ADHD, all of which make it more difficult for him to submit to any authority, real or imagined.”
On the face of it, the implications might seem obvious. Her statement is clear and easy to follow. But that sentence alone lacks any indication that anyone needs to hear it, unless they have a child with the same disorder. When reading essays we sometimes feel like outsiders to what we just heard, wondering ‘what has this to do with me?’ Tracey adds:
“At first, I criticized myself for having a child at 36 when I’d just had a healthy daughter at 35. I believed I gave my son autism and I thought God was punishing me for being greedy.”
Ah, now we’re getting into the emotional heart of the story: fears and guilt held in common by nearly all parents. But there is more at stake here than a mother’s feelings about her son’s condition. Particularly in memoir or personal essay, theme is important. Take a personal story–where the heart lies–turn it outward, engage with the global. Tracey’s son’s condition has implications for society at large; we all have a stake in her story, and Tracey wisely clues the reader in to the possible societal consequences right up front:
“But now, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin’s death and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, have awakened a new fear in me that is strongest for my youngest, most vulnerable child. Trayvon was killed because he did not submit to the imagined authority of George Zimmerman.”
The so-what factor in action; a personal story with something larger at stake. Tracey isn’t rehashing old arguments, she’s giving us a new way to think about a story that’s becoming all too familiar—the violent death of innocents at the hands of those with guns. Whether fiction or essay, your story should offer the reader something new to think about or a new way to think about something familiar. Remember that every editor’s drug of choice is surprise.
Perhaps Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 movie Full Metal Jacket, considered a classic in the Vietnam-movie genre, seemed to offer little reason to keep watching for this film buff because so many movies have since given us cinéma vérité bootcamp experiences, that it no long holds the ability to shock—there is no element of surprise. But there’s more to the movie’s lack of at-stake-ness than that. Watching the endless scenes of a drill sergeant tormenting recruits that make up the first half of the move, I kept wondering, ‘What’s the point?’
Though the bootcamp scenes are but a tiny slice of Gustav Hasford’s novel, Kubrick dwells for an hour on the tedious process of dehumanizing the marine recruits, while giving the viewer not a single inroad to the characters’ lives or histories, not a crumb of detail allowing us to identify with the characters. We don’t feel sad or horrified when they later die, because we are never allowed to experience them as human beings. And perhaps that is the point, but the lesson for us mortals who lack the accolades for having created 2001: A Space Odyssey, Lolita, A Clockwork Orange, is that style does not trump substance and an oblique message won’t result in a movie being made—or book published—if we don’t give our readers a stake in the outcome for our characters.
Fully drawn, compelling characters are a good start, but more than that, your story must have a premise or it’s not a story. It might be something else but it’s not a ‘story.’ ‘Premise’ is closely related to ‘theme’ which I’ll address in a bit. And if your audience doesn’t buy your premise—soldiers aren’t actually people?—they’ll have a hard time wanting to read through to the end of your story. To be sure, whether a story is worth the reader’s time is a subjective matter, if Full Metal Jacket’s 94% Rotten Tomato rating is any indication. But keep in mind that once you have a record of publishing successes, your work will be viewed though a this-must-be-genius-if-a-genius-created-it lens, and until then you need to make a reader care enough to keep turning the pages.
“Always keep the reader in mind.”
~ Jonathan Evison ~
Often we focus on mastering writing elements such as characterization, style, structure. All the flashy technique, fabulous phrasing, amazing metaphors will not compensate for the lack of having something worth saying to the reader. Though with experimental fiction sometimes authorial at-stake-ness can make a story work. Which means, the author is so clearly interested and invested in the piece that the reader cares what happens. Remember Samuel R. Delany’s words from my first WBG post, “Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind.” The-thing-that-happens better be something the reader cares about.
Let’s say you are writing about female friendship, couple of twenty-somethings who also like having men in their lives. We all know a phalanx of women who fit that description. What makes the women you are writing about different from one another and from other women? What makes them interesting? Why should a reader care? In other words, so what?
Often the characterization—funny, high-strung, badass, etc—invests your reader in your story. This hard-to-do characterization is the opposite of Kubrick’s reducing his characters to ‘types’ signified by their sergeant-assigned moniker—The Joker, Gomer Pyle, Cowboy. Take the time to make your characters fully drawn.
Sometimes the ‘so-what’ factor is a matter of timing, as with Tracey’s essay in the aftermath of the Zimmerman shooting. My short story about twenty-something female friendship, “Aphrodite Carries Condoms” found a home in the context of the recent spate of public slut-shaming. Take any story of yours that might lack the so-what factor and see if you can place it in the context of current events to increase its meaning for the reader.
A sort of so-what litmus test that I give to my own work as well as each submission in my Hunger Mountain queue is to ask the question, “Is it worth reading twice?”
Humorous writing is among the most challenging in terms of the so-what factor. Once we know the punch line, rare indeed is a humorous piece worth a second read. Another challenge in the so-what test is episodic story lines, which often come off as disjointed, repetitive, predictable . . . one damn thing after another, so who cares? The cure is causation: Make sure this happens because that happened, not just another incident in succession. Episodic also requires expert characterization. Think of any successful television series and it’s clear that clearly drawn and quite specific characters are key. The chemistry teacher turned meth kingpin; the show-biz wanna-be housewife married to the Cuban band leader; the eccentric English detective and his physician/biographer sidekick. The so-what happens because we care what happens to these characters.
Sometimes meaning arises from a text of its own accord. Or rather, from the writer’s unconscious mind. Let it. Then when you become aware of your subconscious’ favorite themes, try writing with meaning in mind. One of my MFA advisors observed that all my work is shot through with the politics of gender. I hadn’t even realized that was an element spanning the breadth of my work, which is written in many different styles and voices. Once she pointed out the common theme, (and how right she was), I began thinking of other ways to explore that theme in my work, leading to blossoming of stories.
“The combinatorial agility of words, the exponential generation of meaning once they’re allowed to go to bed together, allows the writer to surprise himself, makes art possible, reveal how much of Being we haven’t yet encountered.”
~ Donald Barthelme ~
As mentioned above, theme is of even greater import in narrative non-fiction than in fiction. Theme is a story’s main external conflict and overriding internal conflict and the resolution of those conflicts. Worthwhile themes make us aware of what is good and true in the world—courage in the face of obstacles, the power of mercy and justice, sacrifices made for others. On the surface, a personal essay is a story about something that happened; memoir is a bunch of those stories strung together. Written-beyond-good narrative non-fiction connects those stories to a deeper truth. Memoir is about something larger than the individual, and the way to tap into larger truths is to focusing on the personal, seemingly insignificant details that make you the individual you are, be vulnerable in the telling and don’t try to tell it all. Just because it happened doesn’t make it interesting or significant. Be deliberate and focus on (or cut down to) only what drives the story forward, what connects each moment to the theme.
As much as we hear in writing programs that writing should be very woo-woo let-it-happen, I’ll wager that there is a word for writers who deliberately write to theme, who keep what’s in it for the reader in mind as they write; who create fiction with meaning. That word is ‘published.’
Thanks for reading ~
Q Lindsey Barrett is a short story writer and novelist, writing teacher, conference speaker, and member of the National Book Critics Circle. She exalts writers and rejects manuscripts as Assistant Fiction Editor of Hunger Mountainand taps out atonement in her ‘Writing Beyond Good’ column at The Missouri Review Blog. One of that elusive species nocte scriptor, she can be sighted on many a starless Pacific Northwest night at her treadmill desk, walking, endlessly walking, fingers arranging and re-arranging words, ever seeking the combination that creates story magic