Friday, September 18, 2015

Challenging Writers to Create Stories With Meaning


Are books magic? A strange question, one that may cause some to shake their heads in scorn and joke that poor Hannah has finally gone crazy. But it is not, after all, such an odd question. Books have the power to transport us to new worlds. They allow us to make friends with people we have never met, open our minds to ideas we would have otherwise never considered. And sometimes, if the writing is powerful enough or the words read often enough, books can change the way that we live our lives. They can change the way we think and talk, and even the way we act.

It is because of this that books are so beautiful and yes, even magical.

Is it not odd, then, that something with so much power is often misused…or not used at all? Go to a book store. Walk up and down the aisles. What will you see?

Books ranging from 300-400 pages, because apparently that’s the sweet spot. Four different types of covers: two characters almost kissing, extremely dark-looking covers, headless people walking in a field, or psychedelic colors paired with childish font. The stories focus on a broken girl’s search for happiness, which she finds in a devilishly handsome man who loves her more than the sun. Or, perhaps, a hero’s journey to save the world from destruction because…er…that’s what he’s supposed to do. Nice people die to raise the stakes. A couple of black characters are thrown in to add diversity. The common message? Fight to find your own happiness in an extremely screwed up world.

It makes me sick.

Stories can be such wonderful things. Their words can inspire people to make better choices, help them see the world from a new perspective. They can paint magnificent worlds and awaken convictions within people that have lain dormant for many years.  Book characters can bring hope through their victories and encouragement through their pain.

And we’re wasting that.

Novels have so much potential to make people really stop and examine their lives and the societies they live in. But, unfortunately, that tends to be thrown out the window for “strong” female characters, zombies, teen romance, corrupt governments, and mindlessly evil antagonists. Interesting elements, to be sure, but writers are allowing them to crowd out any hope of a novel showing a bigger picture or a deeper meaning.

So often, I think we forget that we, as writers, have the power to encourage and inspire through our stories. We get caught up in outlines, interesting plot twists, fleshing out characters, world-building, working social media, and doing all of the things we’re constantly told writers are supposed to do. And we forget to add meaning to our stories. Messages and morals slip through the cracks, leaving an entertaining story that, upon close examination, means very little or nothing at all.

Snap out of it, people!

We’re given the gift of being able to bring words to life and we squander it. Sure, we’re still writing interesting, entertaining stories, albeit slightly repetitive and predictable. But they’re stories that have no point….Stories without souls.

It makes no difference if our protagonist is working to save the world. We need to show why the world is worth saving.

It’s not enough to have a character struggle with PTSD. We need to write them fighting it, coming out of it, learning from it.

Throwing challenges at a character is worthless if we aren’t going to write about how that character overcomes them….or even why he or she wants to.

Don’t just plop in minority characters for diversity. Show your readers why they are important. 

Stand for something. You need to have a reason for writing a story that goes beyond, “I just like to write” or “I’m trying to make money.”

In Japan, they have a beautiful word: Ikigai. It means “a reason for being.” It is not selfish. Ikigai does not refer to making money or achieving socioeconomic success. It goes beyond that. It is finding the value and purpose in your life, giving you a reason for getting up each morning.
Source: http://theviewinside.me/what-is-your-ikigai/ 

It’s supposed to be applied to people, but I think this concept can be applied to books, too. Every story needs an ikigai. Every story needs a reason for being written.

So pause for a second and think. What problem do you see that needs to be brought to light and fixed? How can you, through your writing, help those around you? What, in short, is your story’s ikigai?

It needs to have one. It may take a while to find. You may have to edit and refine. You’ll probably find more than one message running throughout your book. Highlight them. Create them so that they’re impossible to ignore. Make it so that, when somebody puts down you book, they sit back and take a moment to think. To feel satisfied because they know that what they just read will stay with them for a long, long time.

You don’t have to sacrifice your story to do this. And you don’t have to whack people over the head with your beliefs. You just have to write with purpose. It’s scary, because that’s your heart right there on the page, but it’s worth it.

Think about the books that have made a difference in your life. Why did you like them? Because they had a good plot, interesting characters, good writing. But also because they meant something. The words spoke to you like you were the only person on earth. Like all the author ever wanted was for you to see that little piece to the puzzle that helps you understand what makes the world go 'round.

You’ve read countless stories. But those are the ones you remember. Because those are the ones that really matter. As Samwise the Brave says, “Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something even if you were too small to understand why.”

And so the question must be asked again: are books magic? The answer to this question now seems apparent. Books have the power to affect the mind, to change the world. If something so small, something constructed of ink, glue, and words, can do all of these things, then the answer is yes. Books are magic, and they should be treated as such.  

Instead of tapping into just its smallest amount of potential, why not go all in? Why not use books to build up and encourage people everywhere? We can do it. You know we can. So what’s stopping us? Nothing but our own ignorance of the abilities that we hold.

So here is my challenge to you: Every time you sit down to write, stop and think. Remember the power you have. Consider what you can help people fix. And then write. Not just a good plot and deep characters. But a story. A story with meaning.

A story with a soul.

What do you think? Will you step up and take my challenge? Or do you already know your story's ikigai? Leave a comment below!

Related articles:
Challenging Creative Writers To Be More Creative
Be A Writer, Not An Author
8 Stereotypes in YA Dystopian Novels

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22 comments:

  1. Nothing wrong with a run-of-the-mill romance. Some readers like to know ahead of time what they're getting into. But I'll be the first to say that we need diversity in books, which inherently means including those that have deeper themes.

    The danger is what you alluded to with don't "whack people over the head with your beliefs." I think the best message is one the reader gets organically from the story itself. Make the "belief" an inherent part of the story and/or characters (aka theme), and let the reader decide what they get out of it. The best "sermons" are those you get from real life, or a fictional representation of it. A clue whether you're doing it successfully is when different readers take different messages out of it. That means they're investing themselves, becoming part of the story.

    I'd like to think that my story, The Silent Tempest, has deeper meanings to it, and I could list what they are. But I won't, at least not in public. That should be the reader's decision, not mine. For example, The Left Hand of Darkness changed me in ways that I didn't realize until long after I had finished reading it. But Ursula K. Le Guin never preached, never hinted about tolerance, which is exactly what I got from it. The story and its memorable characters did that for me, not the author herself.

    Thanks for posting this, Hannah. Messages like this need to be heard more often. In other words, you CAN preach in your blog, LOL!

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    1. Bingo! The themes should come across as very natural and be woven into the story rather than forced in. I agree that readers should be able to take different messages away, but I don't think it's a bad idea to guide them in certain directions. I've found that often books have several themes put there on purpose by the author, but one stood out to me more than the others because of my walk in life. So a friend and I could read the same book, but we'd each come away with slightly different messages while still seeing the other's POV. I think J.K. Rowling does this well.
      The Silent Tempest is officially on my TBR list. Hoping to get to it sometime around Christmas! =)
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment! I really appreciate your continued support and encouragement.

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  2. Seriously? You're such an amazing an inspiring author. I love your post, they always help me so much. I copy and read them over and over again, when I'm writing. They're just so useful and help me, to feel better with my writing.
    Thanks for this- you're the one, who takes me to my writing.

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    1. This is probably one of the sweetest comments I have ever gotten. Thank you so much! Best of luck on your writing journey. I know you can do it!

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  3. All I can say, dear Hannah, is that you're preaching to the choir... Sadly, I think a lot of people write for the wrong reasons and no longer view that act of creation as such, but as a means to make money :\

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    1. Yeah, I'm hoping to get to the point where I can start publishing to a wider audience and become a 'street corner preacher' as well as a choir preacher. =D I think writers have the means and the brains to be more responsible, they just need a little nudge.

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  4. We really want our readers to get into the deeper meaning of things through our stories and we must create the soul of the story to penetrate into our readers' minds and hearts. I totally agree with you Hannah that we must bring meaning to our stories.

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    1. Nice to meet a fellow writer with the same point of view. Thanks, Anshu! Best of luck with your writing!

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  5. hey I really like your blog hope you check out mine and like it!
    http://ari-the-reject-teen-writer.blogspot.com/2015/06/how-to-add-love-intrest-in-your-book.html

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    1. Thanks Ari! I just checked out your blog. The anime gifs are a fun touch. =D Keep up the awesome work!

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  6. Ikigai, what a beautiful word. It encompasses how I feel about writing. I think one of the main points there is "that which the world needs". Can writing make you money? Yeah. Do you love it? Great! Are you good at it? Even better. But if you don't have something to offer that the world needs then why do it? The ikigai is not complete without meaning.

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  7. I read an interview of Brandon Sanderson in BYU Magazine. He was writing the books he wanted to write (following his heart). No one wanted to publish them. Some friends told him to change the slant of his books to make them more what publishers were looking for. He thought about it. He asked himself the question (paraphrase) "If, at the end of my life, I have drawers full of unpublished manuscripts of books I wanted to write with I be okay with never having published? Or should I write what they want?" He decided he would be okay with writing books he loved to write even if they were never published. Of course now Brandon is quite big in the fantasy world writing books he wants to write. Definitely ikigai. Dozen of zombie books (and I don't mean books about zombies) are being pumped out every hour. I'm in search for books that live. Thanks, Hannah.

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    1. That is such an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing, Tory. It's always nice to hear of other writers who have followed their hearts.
      Also, I like the term zombie books. I think I'm going to start using that. =)

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  9. Hannah, I have to start by thanking you. As I was reading, I started to think--to actually think!--about the issues that have been on my heart lately. I jumped over to OneNote and under my pitiful Themes page, I started to pump out things that break my heart or make me sick about society today. It was jerky at first; my writer's brain automatically trying to fit the first thing I thought of into this preconceived story; but like magic, the words started flowing from my fingertips as tears flowed from my eyes. I realize now that my story needs to fit my "theme", not the other way around. Your post cracked open the cynical/apathetic mindblock I long ago placed to "protect" myself from the awful things in the world, causing me to think for myself for the first time in longer than I care to admit. It was painful. It was beautiful. Again, thank you!

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    1. Thank you for this beautiful comment, Nicole! I am so happy to hear that this post struck a cord with you. I love to hear that you are making a breakthrough with the themes in your story...and the walls you set up in your head. I am so excited for you and your story. Many blessings.

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  10. Now I feel like the only one who can't seem to find the meaning in books. :/

    Why can't we just write because we enjoy it? I like writing fluffy things because I like seeing characters happy. I like writing about monsters because I like monsters. That's all there's ever been to my writing. How do I fix this?

    My favorite books are my favorites because they're fun to read. If they were life changing, it's because I realized that I could write too. Maybe I'm just not reading well enough.

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    1. I don't think that what you are describing is a bad thing at all, James. I don't know that it needs to be fixed, maybe just looked at differently. You write fluffy things because you like seeing characters happy. Great. So perhaps you are writing to make your readers feel happy, too, which is a good goal. And why do you like monsters? I personally like monsters because they represent something stronger than myself that needs to be overcome...or perhaps understood. So when I write monsters, that's how I come at them.

      I also have many favorite books that I like simply because they're fun: They give me hope and show me that the world doesn't always have to be dark or sad. =) So I don't think you're in a bad spot. Maybe you should just try to look a bit deeper.

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  11. Thank you so much for this post! This is exactly what i've been struggling with for a while- wanting to write something with meaning and not to just "put more nonsense in the world" as a blunt friend of mine phrased it. I think that your idea of ikigai is so beautiful, so thank you for putting this in writing.

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    1. Your blunt friend sound awesome. Give him/her a high five for me. =D

      I love the concept of ikigai, so I was excited to have a chance to share it. I'm sure you'll be able to write something beautiful and meaningful. I'll be cheering you on!

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  12. You are an inspiration...

    I have been struggling with finding my gift wondering what career will make me the most money, that I feel I could do. Especially with having a family and dept. I thought I settled on one job, however I had to realize what my true passion was. It is to write. No matter how good or bad I am at it, I truly want to write. (Currently going to go to school for Creative Writing) Of course I want to make money, however the way I want to do it is from my soul and from what is within me not a myriad of everything everyone else has been writing. Reading your articles have confirmed what has been hiding deep inside of me.

    Thank You!

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    1. This comment put a huge smile on my face. I'm so excited for you and your writing journey. In such a busy world it can be so hard to make the decision to take time to focus on what it is we love and feel called to do. I'm so happy that this post helped nudge you into writing something you believe in. Go you!

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