Good Stories Aren’t About What They’re About

by Bill Henderson

A good story doesn't mean what it meansThat’s right, Grasshopper. A good story doesn’t mean what it *means.* Nothing illustrates the difference between writing fiction and writing nonfiction more clearly than this simple, but hard to verbalize, fact of life.

Paradox? Yes, but when you think about it, what is fiction but paradox upon paradox upon paradox? Consider:

• Readers must know enough to get what’s happening, yet if you interpret, in narrative, what they’ve just seen in action, the scene falls flat.

• Readers demand the unpredictable, the surprising, yet if you strain their credulity only slightly, you’ve lost them.

• Readers want dialogue that’s meaningful, but they shy away from “on-the-money” speeches: “I’m in love with you, Jennifer. But I’m no different from most men. We cluster around the security of marriage and home. Might as well face it, sweetheart, I’m never going to leave Barbara.” Ugh.

Indeed, the entire enterprise of fiction is based on a single stupendous paradox: that you must convince readers to believe, willingly, things they know can’t possibly be true. (P.S. Done well, it works.)

Nonfiction, by contrast – journalism, for example – wants there to be no confusion about what actually happened. The meaning of what happened, if it’s part of the report at all, is a summing-up of its significance, determined logically by assessing the event:

The earthquake, which happened in the prime evening hours, occurred directly under the National Soccer Stadium, a potential disaster for thousands of concertgoers with tickets to hear pop star Juan Carlos. By a fluke of fate, however, Juan Carlos had cancelled his appearance due to anaemic advance orders, and since no event was scheduled, the lucky fans were home in their beds.

Clear what happened? Like a bell. And yes, fiction requires basic clarity too (what happened under the stadium? what were the immediate physical and medical consequences? etc.) but fiction’s ultimate aim is not to document the earthquake so much as to reveal the depth and power of its emotional consequences – usually visited on a few key characters:

Juan Carlos had canceled his scheduled stadium concert for that night. The advance orders had been miserable. He was finished, he told himself, washed up. Then he heard the news on the radio in his kitchen and fell to his knees. Something was stirring in the room around him, moving and shifting slowly. He had no idea what it might be, but it was bigger than good or evil, bigger certainly than his paltry career. “Thank you, thank you, thank you…” he muttered into his clasped fists, over and over again, not sure to whom or what…

And so, maybe we have the beginning of a story or novel in which an over-the-hill South American pop star finds his career path obliterated, his relationship to the Universe changed forever, by a single miraculous act of salvation. Where might this go? A lot of places. And we’re off…

An unremarkable 30-ish married couple is rocked by the news that their seven-year-old son has a malignant tumor. High medical drama, for sure, and as the story moves forward, it might appear to be about the boy’s shifting diagnosis, his treatment, his odds for survival. But read carefully: this is fiction. If it is a good story, it will move its focus inexorably toward the parents and how the emotional consequnces play out in them. It will drill deep into character, where, separately and together, the couple will be severely tested. As their child’s disease takes its course, the arc of the story will form, complication by complication, pointing toward an ultimate crisis in the shared life of this family. What began as a story about a boy – and still hangs on the progress of his condition – will turn out to be more about an ordeal of two parents, blindsided by life, and how they deal with the twisted cruelty of their shared destiny.
One more time, then:

Good fiction is not about what it is about. It’s about what lies within, beneath, hidden, unspoken, but super-powerful, like any cataclysm that occurs in the dark. And to go one more step farther, it is ultimately about what all this upheaval means for characters we care about.

With that, I’ll sit down now and let someone else speak up. If you’d like to leave me a comment, I’d love it. Do you agree, disagree, or have another thought to throw into the mix? Let’s hear it.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Teano January 15, 2013 at 7:30 am

You mean, they need to have an underlying meaning? I try to go for that, but also leave enough space for interpretation. It’s a little bit comparable to my views on music. If someone sees something completely different in it, that’s fine with me. There was a series of novels I read that just kept slamming your head into the same views over and over again, which eventually got me to dislike them…

2 Van Mayhall Jr January 30, 2013 at 11:41 am

Very simply said, and very true. While there are things I want people to take away from my own novel, such as family and faith, there should be a lot left open for interpretation.

3 Software for Novel Writers April 15, 2013 at 5:30 am

Possibly the briefest post I’ve ever seen. Punchy and to the point – I like it! And I agree with Van Mayhall Jr too – a novel will be about different things to different people.

4 David Sandrock June 9, 2013 at 7:49 am

Very vague for a blog post…

5 Mike March 9, 2014 at 9:46 am

@David Sandrock:

Actually, it’s pretty concrete. A story on it’s surface may be about, say, a man who has to rescue somebody, but if the protagonist is a white supremacist and the person to be rescued is a black man, then the story isn’t about a rescue; it’s about hatred and how people deal with it.

6 Bill Henderson March 14, 2014 at 9:16 am

Mystery solved, friends. Behold the missing post. To those who assumed the empty space that sat here for so long was a Zen-like trick to dramatize my title, I apologize. I don’t like those kinds of shenanigans in an informational blog. Too cute. It was only a screw-up by my webmaster (me). I especially apologize to Valentine Gurarie whose consideration in Tuesday Fiction Writers generously tried to some sense out of the confusion. And yes, Valentine, some stores are what they’re about; it’s just that they’re better told “slant,” as Emily Dickenson put it. Really, this is what lies at the heart of the old saw “show, don’t tell.” At any rate, here’s the original post again, fully restored.

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