Several recent posts and comments here on Writer Unboxed have referenced my workshop “Unboxed Writing” at this year’s Un-Conference in Salem, including this post by Julia Munroe Martin. On Monday, Jael McHenry also sparked a lively discussion about politics and authors expressing themselves on social media versus through their fiction.
For those who were not able to attend my workshop, a key point was determining the change you want your fiction to provoke. Lisa Cron’s opening workshop asked the question, “What is the point of your novel?” My closing workshop question was, “What is the purpose of your writing?” I asked, “How do you want your novel to change the world?”
Fiction changes the world. It has before. It will again. Do not doubt it. There are too many examples that have worked in too many ways for this point to be in dispute. Even pulp novels have caused us to define our times in fresh terms. From outrage to compassion to surrender to war, novels have moved us, incited us, and transformed us.
Our experience of immigrants, refugees and other cultures has opened our eyes in The Jungle, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, The Kite Runner. We see race in America differently thanks to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Invisible Man, To Kill a Mockingbird, Beloved, The Help. War became less glorious because of The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Catch 22. We see those who are ailing and dying as newly alive though Flowers for Algernon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, The Fault in Our Stars. Oppression, submission and the tyranny of utopia are brought home to us in Brave New World, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Hunger Games. Modern alienation and power of connection come through strongly in The Catcher in the Rye, Stranger in a Strange Land, The Road, A Man Called Ove. Heroism was redefined in Tarzan of the Apes, Riders of the Purple Sage, The Maltese Falcon. We have been uplifted and inspired to live better, more loving and spiritual lives through The Little Prince, Steppenwolf, The Alchemist, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.
That’s just for starters. How do you want your novel to change the world? If you do not believe your fiction has that power, think again. However, I’m not here today to convince you that your novel will change the world. I already know that it can. I’m here to suggest how to put your purpose to work on the page. Let’s look at the actual methods of making the world better.
Identifying Your Purpose
The first step involves thinking and searching your own heart. Ask yourself: What is wrong with our world? What injustice do we need to see? What trend should cause us alarm? What aspect of our human condition do we timidly suffer or ignore? Who looks different to us who is really the same? To what irony should we pay attention? What do we need to remember? Where may we find inspiration when we’re not looking? What is good about us when everything around us makes us feel bad? If we get nothing else right, or are able only to do one thing noble in our lives, what would that be? What makes it okay for us to die and leave this Earth?
And this: If after experiencing your novel, your readers will be inspired to do one thing differently, what will that one thing be?
Enacting Your Purpose Through Story
Here are four ways that your purpose can go to work on the page.
The first is by making your story world a microcosm. Take the point or purpose you have identified and turn it into two opposing positions. Who, or what groups, in your novel represent each idea, force or way of being? Build two or more sides. Create justifications for each, imperatives to compel each to take action, and for each a necessity to win.
Now, how can you trap your hero or heroine in the middle?
A second way is to create the “Atticus Moment”. That is to say, an exhortation and ringing call. Think of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech in Henry V. (“But if it be a sin to covet honor, I am the most offending soul alive.”) Or, Samwise’s speech at the end of The Two Towers. (“It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered.”) Or, Atticus’s closing argument to a racist jury in the trial of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. (“To begin with, this case should never have come to trial. This case is as simple as black and white.”)
Notice something about such ringing calls, though. They are not preachy, which is to say judgmental. They are to a specific purpose. To stir to battle. To inspire the final push. To lift feeble men to live up to their highest ideals. Effective exhortations come at critical moments. They seek to accomplish something specific and urgent. They are delivered in terms plain or poetic, but either way they are clear and strong.
Moreover, the ringing call is directed at someone who needs to hear it. It elevates a dire moment. It does more than hope to make the immediate situation better; it intends to bring about a result that will be remembered for all time.
Who in your novel can deliver such a ringing call? To whom? At what dire moment? In what strong terms? To serve what principle? To hold true to what timeless virtue? To bring about what action? To envision what beautiful, impossible result? To declare your purpose how?
A third way to put your purpose to work is one we can sum up in the phrase, “Do the right thing!” This is the moment when your hero or heroine changes for the better, and shows it in some way practical, or symbolic or both. It is the turn toward virtue, the abnegation of bad habit or cowardice, the rise above one’s fallible self, the act of self-sacrifice.
Ask, what is the most honorable, admirable, upstanding or principled thing that your protagonist could possibly do? Ask, what is the biggest way in which your protagonist could demonstrate humility, courage, compassion or forgiveness? What is most needed in the world of your story? What single, visible action represents that? In your story, what would be the greatest show of love, the equivalent of saying farewell with grace, of summoning inner fortitude, or of washing Jesus’s feet?
Having found that action, determine to include it and then work backwards in your manuscript to make that action sorely needed, impossible to do and (until now) unknown in this world. Make it something difficult, even impossible, for your protagonist personally to do. In other words, magnify its impact and through that demonstrate your purpose.
A fourth way to make your purpose alive on the page is to build up in your story opposition to that in which you believe. When the world is working powerfully against what is good, we hope and cheer all the harder. When things look the bleakest, we scream don’t give up! When defeat comes, as it does in all good stories, our hearts break. So, in your novel how can your antagonists achieve rising success, while your hero or heroine stumbles and falls, and the day is lost? What would make it feel impossible that right should prevail? Go with that. We’ll feel your purpose all the more.
100 Novels That Will Change the World
In the ballroom of the Hawthorne Hotel in Salem at the end of my workshop, I looked around the room and said, “There are one hundred fiction writers in this room, more or less. What if each one of you have a point to your novel and a purpose in writing it? If so, one hundred transformative novels will be published in the years between 2018 and 2020, and if they are how can the world possibly stay the same? It cannot.”
If your intention in writing is to “illuminate” or “explore”, or simply to entertain, why are you aiming so low? Make a statement. Declare yourself. Teach us what we don’t know. Show us how to accomplish that which we are afraid to do. Don’t just challenge our thinking, change it. Don’t just create conflict, shine a light on injustice, stir our timid hearts, make us want to leap up and act, show us the better world in which we could live. Don’t just warn us, inspire us to change.
The novels that will change the remainder of the 21st Century have yet to be written. You have a keyboard. You have the craft. You have the eyes, mind and heart of a great storyteller. What are you waiting for? As I commented the other day, we are all writers. The worst thing we could do, especially now, is to keep quiet.
Write your novel for a purpose. Change the world. You can and you will.