Find Your Book's Driving Force
At a writing conference a few years ago, I chatted with a woman who’d worked for several years on a children’s book. She described a dizzying array of things the characters did. But when I asked what the main thing was that she wanted readers to learn from reading it, she became silent.
It’s essential to spend time writing “outside the lines” to stretch your understanding of things. And some famous authors like Diana Gabaldon of the Outlander series have described building up chapters from one single image, such as of the way sunlight passed through a goblet on a table. But eventually, writers need to anchor content on an insight or two that is larger than the ephemeral impact of individual scenes.
Refining the heart of your work not only gives readers greater pleasure, but gives you guardrails to cull down content to what’s most essential, which helps drive the narrative forward.
Building up from a thematic baseline
Find the larger meaning that will eventually be revealed to readers is partly about recognizing the theme—or themes—of a book, it’s central topic. This could be an author’s take on love, good and evil, having a work ethic, divorce, wealth, or a character’s loss of innocence. Things truly get interesting when an author takes their particular view of the theme and fully fleshes out thoughts about it by how their choices of what to keep in and throw out of long-form content.
Can wealth be good? Is there more to life than having a work ethic, and what does the author want to share about the balancing act to maintain success at work and at home? Perhaps their personal take-home is that you have to focus on your home life to truly thrive — or that it’s not about finding balance, but accepting that home and work life will clash, and riding out those moments as best as possible.
Looking beyond some of the themes in To Kill a Mockingbird, for instance, you see that Harper
Lee’s work isn’t just about equality, and a child’s loss of innocence as a result of seeing society’s prejudices in action. It’s partly about a growing acceptance of others through the potential for good in Boo Radley, and evil in us all. Accepting others as we mature, and that discomfiting dual potential in everyone, are take-home messages that readers can bring to bear on their own lives.
In the Harry Potter novels, the value of humility is a take-home message, as Potter does better in the long run with that approach than Draco Malfoy, with his blatant displays of familial position and wealth. In a case like this, then, a take-home message may be the moral of the story.
In The Life of Pi, Yann Martel covers themes of survival and religion, among others. The ride he takes readers on reveals how strong the will to survive is. He also draws readers into the main character’s world so well that, by story’s end, when we see the horrific lengths Pi likely went to for survival, we may wonder what lengths we’d go to when pushed to our own limits.
This illustrates that the overriding message may not tie things up neatly into a pretty package. In addition, the package still needs to involve believable, relatable characters who are handled with care so readers feel connected to the message revealed by book’s end.
The heart of memoirs, personal essays
Memoirists and others who want more in-depth exposure to defining the driving force for their personal narrative have a great guide in The Situation and the Story. In just under 200 pages, author Vivian Gornick helps readers unpack how to make creative non-fiction essays and memoirs sing by describing more than a dozen good (and sometimes bad) examples. Gornick emphasizes unraveling the wisdom a writer seeks to share (what she calls the story in personal narratives) from the situations described (the context or circumstances covered, or sometimes the plot).
Among the gems shared by this best-selling author are examples of two women’s essays that are markedly different “stories” about their marital struggles (the situation). The authors’ successes resulted from doing the work of being honest about their unique emotional experiences and a willingness to share their perspectives.
How to find your work’s driving force
Still not sure what the driving force is in your developing work? Besides reading Gornick’s book, I recommend checking out a timeless article called A Hook for Every Book. In it, agent Paula Balzer describes a process for separating out a book’s theme from what draws readers to it (the hook, which can be the unusual way the story unfolds, and relates to its take-home message). In a nutshell, she recommends taking apart a developing book’s content, setting aside the nonessential bits, and categorizing what matters by theme, and then reviewing any patterns that emerge.
As a contemporary example of how a hook relates to the other elements, the recent best seller A Long Way Home isn’t the first work to cover what it’s like to be a poor child in India. The hook to Saroo Brierley’s memoir is describing his harrowing cross-country journey as a five-year-old orphan. This leads to a messy search as an adult living elsewhere (the situation) to define his identity and what love and family really mean to him (his relatable story).
Ultimately, good writing comes alive from well-curated sharing of your own internal “voyage of discovery,” as Gornick calls it. The same applies to a novelist fleshing out characters. To make content personal for the reader, you have to find out why a situation, a character, or a time of your (or the character’s) life, speaks to you.
By Barbra A. Rodriguez