When my younger son was in the first grade, his teacher gave the class a writing assignment that consisted of finishing this sentence:
“The most important thing about [insert your name] is____”
My son, Alex, wrote, “The most important thing about Alex is that he tries really hard.”
Now, eleven years later, as I read over Alex’s draft college essays, I realize that this “most important thing”—he tries really hard—was true about him then and is still true about him now. In fact, this simple sentence manages to sum up and describe so much about who Alex is, what his values are and what drives his choices and actions.
Because it invites such an apt and succinct description of a defining characteristic of the person completing the sentence, this simple first-grade assignment also contains a brilliant nugget of writerly wisdom: at the heart of every character, every scene and every story lies one single Most Important Thing. It could be a sentiment, a motivation, a mood or a source of tension. But whatever it is, there is only one that’s most important.
In drafting stories, with so many strands of inspiration swirling around in our minds, it can be hard to sort out what really matters. Which characters, which scenes, which actions, descriptions, metaphors or dialogue lines are relevant. What lies at the heart of it all and how to stay centered amid the myriad possibilities pulling us in different directions is often nebulous because everything we create and imagine feels precious.
In my own fiction-drafting process, the phrase “the most important thing about X is____” is always on my mind—especially as I re-write, revise and cut. X can be any number of things: a character as a whole, a character’s mood in a particular scene, the relationship between two or more characters, a setting, a prop, a conversation. It may take multiple drafts for that Most Important Thing to become clear, but even in early iterations, I am constantly asking myself what it is. In the early stages the answer informs me about what direction to head in, what overarching choices to make, what to include and whether to continue at all. If I can’t articulate a Most Important Thing, is there a story worth telling?
As I move through the revision process, asking “what’s The Most Important thing about X?” helps me decide what to trim, what to cut, what to add and where to end. There may of course be other important things percolating under the surface, but there is always one that is more important than all the others: the single Most Important Thing. This is the beating heart of any story or story element.
Asking this question helps not only with writing fiction, but also with all other forms of storytelling. At BookSavvy PR, where my team and I promote authors and books, our secret weapon in hooking the media is storytelling. Only rarely do we tell stories about a book overall. Instead, most often, it’s a smaller, bite-sized, sub-story: a snippet of background about the book’s inspiration, for example, or an idea or theme evoked on a certain page. In crafting out pitches, the same question applies: what is the single Most Important Thing we want our media contacts to know right now? Pitches are short, and so is the media’s attention span. Every sentence and every word in the email we send must connect directly back to the Most Important Thing or we’ll lose their attention in a blink.
Ted Talks, Moth Radio narratives, ads, OpEds, short stories, personal essays… Each of these forms of storytelling is also about one single Most Important Thing. Each story wears its heart on its sleeve.
Which brings me back to Alex. When I’m reading his essay drafts, the same principle applies. If I can’t quickly tell what that Most Important Thing is, or if there are details or anecdotes that feel unrelated to it, I take out my trusted red pen.
And Alex, being seventeen, rolls his eyes.
What’s The Most Important Thing about your latest book or current WIP? About your main character or setting? Can you sum it up in several words?