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7 Sneaky Ways to Spotlight Story Wisdom

photo adapted / Horia Varlan

The Truth that resides in the beating heart of a novel is sacred to its author. Its pursuit called the writer to the page and inspired the perseverance to publish against daunting odds. Once your story feels deeply true, you long to share it—and your target audience will long to read it.

Even though your main reason for writing fiction is illustrative more than prescriptive, you can offer a meaningful by-product through quotes that have the potential to spread your novel’s influence. Yes, your novel’s wisdom can serve as an effective marketing tool.

This notion may come across as crass—or at times, even pointless. In a society increasingly influenced by marketing swagger, it can seem it no longer matters what we know to be true, as long as we can convince people to buy what we’re selling. Writing so that our story’s wisdom can be readily fashioned into a marketing meme may be the antithesis of why we write. And yet if your storytelling has struck on a universal truth, and you can deliver it in a fresh way, your readers will share it even without your blessing—through Kindle highlighting, underlining in shared paper copies, and broadcasting through memes on social media—and in so doing, plant seeds of truth in an increasing number of readers. Pulling quotes is so ubiquitous that Goodreads has a section for this on each novel’s page, where readers list their favorites.

Mainstream media loves quotes too. In August of this year, in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, Parade.com published 20 Classic Forrest Gump Quotes [1]. Tell me: when Forrest first spoke of life’s box chocolates, did you roll your eyes and say “how blatantly commercial”—or were you charmed?

And or course authors are readers too. Hungry for nuggets of wisdom that will inspire their own imaginations, other authors may laud your insight by featuring one of your quotes as an epigraph in their own work. In the novel I just finished reading, The Favorite Daughter, author Patti Callahan Henry featured quotes about memory at the top of each chapter as her characters grappled with the implications of their father’s increasingly troubling dementia. The epigraph for Chapter 23 was from Pat Conroy’s Beach Music: “Except for memory, time would have no meaning at all.”

Readers love such quotes, that they can print out and hang on their wall. Just look at the number of “highlighters” that litter the pages of your Kindle. Here’s one from Roland Merullo’s novel, Breakfast with Buddha: “When you are a crank, you put yourself on the top of the list of people you make miserable.” Great quote, right? Turns out 1200 others (and counting) agree with you.

Let’s play a game. Do you know which authors generated these quotes?

  1. “To know what you prefer instead of humbly saying Amen to what the world tells you you ought to prefer, is to have kept your soul alive.”
  2. “All sanity depends on this: that it should be a delight to feel heat strike the skin, a delight to stand upright, knowing the bones are moving easily under the flesh.”
  3. “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.”
  4. “No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently.”
  5. “It is within my power either to serve God or not to serve him. Serving him, I add to my own good and the good of the whole world. Not serving him, I forfeit my own good and deprive the world of that good, which was in my power to create.”
  6. “You’ll want answers, and there aren’t any. But the questions get easier to sit with, in time.”
  7. “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist though any other medium and will be lost.”
  8. “The war against self can have no victor.”

Answers:
1. Robert Louis Stevenson
2. Doris Lessing
3. Anais Nin
4. Agnes de Mille
5. Leo Tolstoy
6. Kathryn Craft
7. Martha Graham
8. Kathryn Craft

Hmm… Who is this “Kathryn Craft,” and why is she suddenly worthy of my attention?

When it comes to the true nature of wisdom, advanced degrees and marketing savvy are artificial qualifications. Wisdom comes from the school of hard knocks, when life pushes you up against a wall and says, “this is NOT working!” By the time I was published, I’d earned an entire bible full of hard-knock lessons—and when my debut released, I gained a platform from which to share them.

Wouldn’t it be awesome if your story not only moved readers, but inspired a new generation of writers by showing up as an epigraph in someone else’s novel? Or if a quote from your work helped one of your readers through a tough time, inspiring a heartfelt letter? Well times are tough, so maybe it’s a good time to think about it.

Since influence is one of the great privileges of being a published author, and your work will be quoted anyway, it follows that writing so that those truths can be found and easily plucked can lead more people to your story and deepen their connection to it. Here are some sneaky ways that late-stage editing can help your story’s wisdom usher you toward a meaningful marketing campaign.

1. Ensure that your story has built toward the revelation in the quote. Sometimes, when drafting toward such a revelation, we’ll drop in a sudden flash of awareness. Later, go back and make to make sure that the character’s desire and the obstacles she encounters push her into the moment of reflection.

2. Make sure the revelation is emotionally charged. That’s the best way to ensure it will be memorable.

3. Place it at the end of a paragraph. This is the power position, where the message has a chance to resonate over the paragraph, section, or chapter break. It will more likely be noticed there than buried in the middle of a paragraph, where it might be skimmed over without impact.

4. Consider delivering it through a secondary character. This is true of both of my quotes in the game above. Number 6 comes from the corporal in charge of the police response, speaking to my protagonist after her husband’s suicide standoff in The Far End of Happy. Number 8 is from the dance critic in The Art of Falling, whose sister was irrevocably damaged from her struggles with body image.

5. Keep your character off the soapbox. Most importantly, we must preserve the thrill of the reader’s discovery as they recognize a moment of truth. Deep point of view will protect you from the impression that your narrative has turned toward the reader to deliver a speech about the way they should feel or act.

6. Write so the truth you’ve hit upon has the feel of a quotable. This tip is the crassest by far, but hey, our readers have spoken. If you pay attention to what most readers highlight in a Kindle version, it isn’t the finer points of writing craft I usually highlight: it’s these quotable bits of wisdom.

Let me talk a bit more about this point. In The Favorite Daughter, I underlined this passage from Henry’s main character, Colleen:

That next morning she awoke with a hangover worse than she’d ever had, one that barreled through her with such force that she finally understood the truth: she could not drown the pain; it knew how to breathe underwater.

So she’d learned to swim.

I loved this fresh take on the nature of pain, and how we can negotiate it. I love that it is positioned at the end of a chapter, bringing home the importance of the preceding scene and raising a new question—how will Colleen “learn to swim”? I don’t suspect Henry was thinking about creating a quotable passage any more than I think her readers had a problem with this delivery, but this passage can help me make a point.

As an independent thinker, I love nothing more than to come upon words that inspire me to nod in solidarity—but here, I bristled at being told “the truth”—that’s a determination I like to make for myself. As an editor, I am suspicious that the word “realized” pulls us from the kind of deep point-of-view that best supports a realization. If POV is well-established—which it was, since this story was written in one POV, and we were on p. 100—the reader will know full well who is doing the realizing, and therefore know it is the character’s truth. This allows the reader to decide if it is a truth to which she also relates.

Compare the published version to this kind of late-stage edit:

That next morning a hangover barreled through her, carrying a forceful message: She could not drown the pain; it knew how to breathe underwater.

So she’d learned to swim.

The capital letter after the colon, which is grammatically legal, subtly signifies the start of the quotable text. I can absolutely see this hanging on someone’s wall to help them through a hard time, so I just added it on Goodreads.

7. Consider using a metaphor. The last thing you’d want is the protagonist’s self-aware delivery, such as, “And that’s when I learned that you just never know what life will throw at you.”

Better: “My mom always said life was like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.”

When you bury the wisdom deep within a character’s perspective like this, it will not only remind the reader of the quote’s universal merit, but also bring back the entire emotional palette of your story. Viewers not only loved this quote from the film Forrest Gump, they have created oodles of memes featuring it and written blog posts debating it. This quote has kept the story alive in people’s minds every blessed time they open a box of candy.

Would you like people to be talking about your novel twenty years from now? Sound bytes are now the way of our world. Consider ways to build them into your novel. And if making a meme from your own life-inspired, story-grown wisdom feels too self-indulgent? Welcome to the often-uncomfortable world of social media marketing. But it may not be necessary—if your pithy quote resonates, someone else just might do it for you.

Do you have favorite quotes from novels that you keep near your writing space? Have you used any as epigraphs? Does this post rub your inner artist the wrong way? Let’s discuss. Feel free to share wisdom quotes from your own stories that might inspire us all in these trying times.

About Kathryn Craft [2]

Kathryn Craft (she/her) is the author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy. A freelance developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com [3] since 2006, Kathryn also teaches in Drexel University’s MFA program and runs a year-long, small-group mentorship program, Your Novel Year. Learn more on Kathryn's website.

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