Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Story of Your Life

What, you didn't think I'd finish Eternal that quickly, did you?  Hopefully I'll have a review ready by Friday, but luckily, I've still got guest columns to share!  Today's comes courtesy of Thanqol, an author whose stories I've reviewed on this blog more than once.  Also, an Australian; don't ask me why, but this blog seems to have attracted a fair number of Aussies, if the analytics tool is to be trusted.  Click below to see what he has to say about the roots of, and fundamental inspirations for, stories of all stripes.

The best stories are personal.

It's possible to write stories which aren't personal. You can write a story with a war even if you've never held a sword. You can write a story about thieves even if you've never so much as shoplifted. You can write a story about love based on the kind of magical love you see on television and read in books. Most stories are based off this kind of thing; they're regurgitated images stolen from the collective mass of popular culture. Even very good stories have many pieces which the author fabricated from pure cloth or from cultural stereotypes. In a lot of ways, this is necessary; the gaps have to be filled in and to write fiction of any kind you have to create, imagine or draw from archetypes or mass symbols.

But there are some stories with no original ideas at all.

You can tell which ones these are. They're the stories you don't remember. They're the stories you can't bring yourself to feel passionate about. They're the played out, cliché cash ins, the stories done for the fame and glory, and the stories which are misguided tributes to better stories. This is a problem that is usually quite dire in fanfiction, and it's quite difficult to get around. The point of fanfiction is to write a story which is a loving tribute, but what is the value of an echo? Most damningly, these stories lack any sort of passion - and writing is about passion. All culture is about passion. Music, art, books, the best pieces are all about big emotions - not necessarily loud emotions, but big ones.

In our own lives, in our own petty experiences, we find those passions. Just because the surroundings are mundane doesn't mean the passion isn't real. The snarl of hate at someone who cuts you off in traffic, a perfectly ordinary romance between two perfectly ordinary people, the serenity of a walk in the sun - those moments can be adapted, studied, applied, and some of that genuine emotion will bleed through. Some stories are screams trapped in paper, ciphered and coded so the scream unwraps in the reader's mind even if they're unaware of it on the pages.

Not everything has to be experienced directly. There are two alternatives: dreams and obsession. Dreams distort the line between sensation and emotion and can provide you with the clearest, sharpest, most ineffable images you'll ever experience. Obsession, deep and vital, turning over and arguing a thought so long that it becomes real.

You can always tell where those personal, powerful moments are, and if you read a story closely with an eye out you'll spot them. They're the scenes which get just a little more love, the images that are just a little brighter and more intense than others, the moments that stand out. Even characters, conversations, or the voice used behind a piece can be an intensely personal thing with echoes of some greater story told in the past. Those images stay with us, an echo of someone else's passion - but we've always got to be careful when echoing them on that we miss the same depth of that experience.

The best stories are stories where, by the end, you feel like you understand the author better. Like you've come to know her as a close, intimate friend. It's like stepping into a scene from somebody's life, so close that your self is obliterated and you see what they see, you feel what they feel. This, more than anything else, is true communication, a level of union so perfect you feel like you're sharing the same mind with the author. Almost like telepathy. Sometimes you have to write sixteen thousand words to communicate a single emotion, to communicate it in the depth that it deserves, to take that communication from "I feel sad" to showing someone exactly what it's like to feel your sadness. That, more than anything else, is what I strive for in my writing and why I read stories.

Think about the vague, drifting voice used in Tales, or the drug haze that consumes Lil'Pip in Fallout Equestria. Consider the awakening of Tiffany in Wee Free Men, the utter collapse in Heaven's Net is Wide, the moment at the end of Brokeback Mountain where Ennis whispers, "Jack, I swear..."

Those are moments that came from the world. Those are moments purely from the author's experience. Those are the moments that make stories great.

If you're going to write a story, remember to include those moments in it. The moments that are yours, not the moments you think we want to hear. Tell us the story of your life.

It's the only story that matters.

Yours truly,

- Thanqol


It's simply amazing how vast the difference is between a story which the author has personally invested in, and one in which he or she hasn't.  Present and future authors, remember to never be afraid of writing your story: even if it's an ill-constructed and indecipherable morass, a gem in the rough is always preferable to a well-polished turd.


  1. //Insert Australians represent comment here.

    In response to your observation, Chris, it's because we Australians are a clever bunch, and we are attracted to clever and interesting things.

    Now, onto the important stuff. Freaking amen, Thanqol. I don't really have too much to say other than I completely agree with you. Even stories with the most fantastical settings and strange and otherworldly events still need that soul built from something personal to you--something constructed from a personal struggle or an idea that you *want* to explore and understand, and you *want* your readers to explore and understand too.

    You have to be passionate about the stuff you are writing. You have to hate it and love it and want to make it as good as it can be, and not just for your sake, but for the story's sake.

    Because yeah. Those are the stories that stand out. Those are the stories that stay with you--that mean something.

    Alright. That's my daily dose of deep and meaningful out of the way. Back to studying public law.

    Ha... :(

    Hey, speaking of writing about what you're passionate about, I think it's about time I wrote a Cupcakes sequel where the hapless (yet (plot twist!) ultimately deserving) victim is a ponyfied version of the limits of judicial power. Don't ask me how I'll make a ponyfied version of that. I'm sure I'll work something out.

  2. Awww. You made me all tingly.

    I must admit it's been something I've been thinking about lately. I almost got discouraged by the sorts of stores I kept seeing her featured or getting good reviews, but after a bit of soul-searching, I realised that it was my choice to write as little (is opening with an 8 month, 130k word project can be said to be little) as I do because of one thing:


    Even my ridiculous little bit of writing that went up recently garnered comments about it being more believable than the assumptions of many stories on FimFic--and believe me when I say it is quite silly.

    But, then I got into wondering whether that was a good thing, and in the end, I decided it wasn't. I mean, having high standards for your own work certainly isn't bad, but practice is practice and I think I need to write an 'ill-constructed and indecipherable morass' or two, as Chris puts it. Have fun, get some practice, and keep aside all those thing I want to do properly.

    After all, I have two multi-part adventures and a few other odds and sods in my head for when I'm quite done with being silly.

    My appreciation for the post, Thanqol.

    -Scott 'Inquisitor' Mence
    (Still a curmudgeon)

  3. Personal experience is always the best source of inspiration, I find. When you can add that personal touch it really goes a long way, and - like you said - it really shows! There's a reason why all my latest fics (excepting the one I'm working on now) have involved travel or take place in an exotic location: I've been doing a lot of traveling in the last few years, and it has really expanded my view of the world.

    I largely agree with your post, though I would add the caveat that I wouldn't say the focus when writing should be on writing "the story of your life." I feel like in many cases that might be putting the cart before the horse. Rather, find ways to incorporate those personal moments within the context of your story, to give it that added depth. There's a fine line between writing a story with a personal touch and writing a story that's about you.

  4. Writers are often reluctant to take a risk. I know I've been burned for it before. They have trouble differentiating between rejection of their story and invalidation of their feelings or experience. But, as is commonly said, nearly any premise can make for a good story. It's all in the execution.

    In short, this particular risk is almost always one worth taking. It pays off in making the story more relatable and involving for the reader.