Tuesday, November 22, 2011


The final piece of my fictional puzzle has come into place, and my female character is about to fall in love. 

I knew, from books and workshops on the art of fiction, that stories are driven by the needs and wants, and thus the goals, of the main characters. Yet "What do you want?” is a question that can often yield an easy answer but little insight. One writing coach offered a slight distinction that made all the difference for me: he asked, What is it your character yearns for? 

Aha! That's a question to be answered not by asking the subject, but rather by observation. And so I re-read my manuscript with that question in mind, and the answer was both clear and startling. (I believe it was the same teacher who said that you can't know a story until it has been told; in other words, often the writer herself cannot see a story’s destination until she  reads it on paper, follows it to its natural conclusion.) 

And it turns out that stories themselves are the key to my character's needs, her yearning. What she longs for is just permission to stop telling her stories, to stop trying to keep those she loves (or fears, or both) alive, to stop trying to hold the world together, purely through the power of her storytelling. She is like Sheherazade, but spinning her tales to save the lives of others.

What she wants, what she yearns for, is permission to be silent. And that is the gift the man from Nebraska will offer her.

So I have been thinking about stories. Our stories have great power. Stories remain as powerful as they were when all of history was passed along through the human voice and scratchings on a cave wall. Stories are the way we learn about life and about ourselves. Stories and their shadows (the silences) are what make us human.

For a child, there is no more powerful utterance than the plea “Tell me a story,” and no moment more full of promise than the moment that follows it.

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