I got that comment half a dozen times this past weekend. The setting was the porch of a monastery. Was I sharing the secret of spiritual enlightenment? Actually, I was brainstorming plot ideas with students at the fabled Writers Retreat Workshop.
In fact, those students had it wrong. I didn’t give them anything they didn’t already have. The story for which they were searching was already in their pages. Like the forest and the trees, they sometimes couldn’t see their story for the words.
A number of lackluster stories were described to me. It might have been a disappointing experience but over the years I’ve learned that every story has a resource waiting to be tapped: its author.
To help dig out the story inside the story I first asked, “Where did this story come from?” I followed that up with, “What in this story matters most to you? What do you want your reader to see? What’s the biggest thing you want me to take away?”
As the origins of the stories were revealed, and their urgency explored, invariably there emerged plot elements and character qualities that were distinctive, original and strong. I suggested that those elements become the foundation stones—the stories very starting points.
Why is it easier for someone else to see high concept buried in one’s manuscript? Is it because writers worry too much about getting down words and too little about what those words are saying? Or is it that writers don’t trust their hearts? Is it safer to write small?
I don’t know, but often there is a great story buried inside the routine story that’s actually on the page. I wish more writers would dig it out.
– Donald Maass
Donald Maass Literary Agency
121 West 27th Street, Suite 801
New York, NY 10001 USA
Photo courtesy Flickr’s tinken.