Story Purpose: understanding your theme.

The purpose of telling or writing any story is to keep the audience/reader interested until you reach the end.  To keep the reader reading…Having said that, though:

What is your purpose in telling/writing your story?  You may think you simply have a good story idea, but I would argue that every story has a purpose.  To understand what I mean, we need to do a little self-examination.

What is your worldview?  Don’t say you don’t have one.  Everyone does.  It is the lens created by nature and nurture through which each of us perceives the world (lives, moves and have our being).  You may not know what it is.  It is most nearly subconscious, but it stands behind our every motivation, determines our faith (what we believe to be true) and morality (what we believe to be right and good), drives our behavior, makes and breaks our relationships, and creates our social systems and cultures which in turn help drive the worldview of the generations that follow.

Everyone has an unique and independent worldview, and there is no escaping it.  This is the reason that journalists, some years ago, gave up on the whole idea of objective reporting (a mistake in my opinion).  Today, journalists attempt to present both sides of the issues.  Of course, the reality is those on both the right and the left present their point of view most eloquently and find the dorkiest idiot to present the other side…but that is another story.

As far as storytelling/story writing goes, it is enough to recognize that we all have a worldview and every story we tell and write will be filtered through that lens and reflect that view.  It can’t be helped.  We cannot avoid telling how we perceive the world to work and either propose how it ought to work or suggest our fears if not hopes about where it is headed.  That is a lot of what storytelling is all about.

This is the make you think stuff, the theme if you will, and even the most “deliberately entertaining and shallow, anti-thought” work will portray something about the world and the author’s view of it.  It is inevitable.  It would be easier to separate ourselves from our left ear in Van Gogh style than eliminate our worldview from our tales.

The Point:  Every story will say something.  What will yours say?  What is your purpose in telling the tale?  Take a good look in the mirror.  They say writing can be good therapy.  This is why: because it can help us get in touch with our worldview: what we truly think, feel and believe, and why we do the things we do.

Cautionary Tales

Worldview as the unavoidable lens though which all tales are told.  Consider this:  worldview is why anthropologists love folktales and myths: because they can reveal so much about the culture, society, lifestyles, and overall shared views of a people.  They can reveal how those people viewed the universe and their place in it.

The same can be said for any modern work of fiction (and non-fiction).  Any modern tale will inevitably reflect something about our current culture, society, the world we live in and in particular, the author’s understanding of it all.  But here, to make it a good story, I offer these cautions:

Beware of showing the extremes:

A book, for example, about “how God is an idiot and how a brave soul can dethrone God and set the universe free” tell us more about the blinking atheist who wrote it than about the universe.  (Likewise, much “Christian” fiction does the same in reverse).  Be aware.  Our stories will reflect our perception of reality, but extreme positions don’t help others understand and deal with reality better, they simply reveal the author’s prejudices.

It can be a temptation to take a thought to its extreme limit and tell that story to express this “great truth.”  As often as not, though, I have seen that backfire, where readers find it hard to take anything the author says seriously, if they even bother to finish reading or listening to the story.  It can be a bit like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. 

Beware of oversimplification:

Likewise, the desire to simplify the story down to protagonist (good guys) and antagonist (bad guys) can be very strong.  My advice:  don’t give into the temptation.  It is the same temptation journalists give into daily:  to present their side of the story brilliantly and to find some blithering doofus to represent the other side. 

The truth is, life is complicated.  As many have said, sometimes the best stories are not even about the struggle between good and evil, but between two goods (or the lesser of two evils).  To be fair, the best stories consider two irreconcilable differences, like Kramer vs Kramer.  This is a messy world, and while the storyteller/storywriter has some compunction to bring order out of chaos, I feel it is best done in a careful way: a way that is “fair and balanced” as one news organization suggests; at least as far as our worldview will allow.

Remember:  The primary purpose in telling a story is to get the audience to pay attention (the reader to keep reading) right to the very end.

In sum.:  Many, if not most stories are told/written without any conscious examination of purpose (theme).  Mark Twain at the beginning of Huckleberry Finn was clear about that:  He said, “Anyone attempting to find a plot will be shot.”  Understand, though, that does not mean the story has no theme.  It may end up the result of muddled thinking, and sadly, many stories that line the bookshelves in the bookstores are exactly that: muddled and confused.  But the best are not.  They speak clearly to the author’s purpose in telling the story, whether the author did so consciously or not.

Likewise, your story will say something, perhaps something unintended, but it is not a bad thing to consider what it is you are actually saying in the story, and why, and it may even suggest the best way to approach telling the story in the first place.  Something to think about.

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