Know Your Story: What’s Your One Word?

sandrachmara.comA follower of this blog brought up an excellent point about an earlier post quoting John Irving:

Know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?

She confessed that while she appreciated – aw, heck, I’ll just let her say it herself:

I appreciate the quote, but I have to say it does make me feel badly about myself. What kind of a storyteller am I? Is “beginner” allowed? How do you get to know the whole story if you don’t commit yourself to writing it down?


For some insight on what John Irving meant and the difference between writing and storytelling, read the commentary on that post. The Know Your Story series that will begin with this post will be strictly to help writers find their way toward what Irving meant by knowing the story before you start writing the story. In other words, narrative – the part you’re delivering to the reader.


Seinfeld famously proclaimed to be a show about nothing. But we all know it was anything but. It was a canny satire on our society and on what we’ve become within it. Had the show come into existence out of Soviet Russia, it would have been its own canny satire on their society. I mean, let’s face it, Kramer being picked up off the street in broad daylight by the internal police of the US Postal Service has a very different tenor than a Kramerski being picked up off some Moscow street by anyone. We’re different societies but what would have stayed the same is our fundamental take on our own in/humanity and how we can frame our responses.

But to say that it was about “nothing” is about the most gutsy way to make fun of human stupidity. It’s absurdly existential, almost “nothingness”, but not quite. Because we can’t take ourselves that seriously, after all.

What if their one word hadn’t been “nothing”? What if it had been “friendship”? Or “absurdity”? Doesn’t it totally take the wind out of the show’s sails to lose that winking consciousness? It’s because the show nailed it with “nothing” that it somehow dug itself deep inside our perceptions of our own time, allowing us to laugh at ourselves in a different way from, say, Friends, which was about almost the same things – a pack of disconnected NY idiots living rectum-deep inside each others’ lives and doing stupid things all the time. Difference? One took itself seriously, the other knew it couldn’t possibly. Seinfeld knew we’re the sideshow. Friends played the sideshow straight. There is a knowingness about “nothing” that will put Seinfeld on a completely different map than Friends when we’re looking back at some of the most important shows of that time.

What one thing is your story about? This must be a moral, psychological, philosophical, spiritual, or emotional point, because we respond viscerally to the roiling mess that defines our very humanity, which distinguishes us from animals. Find that one apt, incisive word to encapsulate the story you want to write.

This is so hard it hurts, because really, no story is ever about one thing, right?

Except they all are. Well, the best are.

If we were to divide storytelling into two categories – For The Writer and For The Reader – this would be a strategic device mainly for the writer, the bull’s eye whose center the writer aims for every time, with every word and paragraph and chapter, with that one idea in boldface across its middle.

The benefits of getting this right serve the reader too, yes, in the long run. But only if it serves the writer first.

Whenever a word, sentence, paragraph, scene, character trait or choice ceases to serve the one word, it is no longer the story you intended to communicate.

Try. Here are some of my best guesses:

  • Misery: possession
  • Anna Karenina: genuineness
  • Gone Girl: self-deception
  • Middlesex: identity
  • The Quiet American: treachery

Yes, Anna Karenina is about adultery, love, romance, society, but what brings the story to its awful boil is the way Anna’s need to be genuine to her own ideals – in opposition to all those other things – plays out. Levin’s story is pushed through the same sieve. As is Kitty’s. If it were not about genuineness, it would not be much of a story. Just stuff happening.

Find that human center of your story. Name it. This is so important that if you get it wrong, it will bruise the delicate reader like a pea under a pile of mattresses. S/he will know you are claiming to be Seinfeld but delivering Friends, or vice versa. Or worse, the not-Seinfeld kind of nothing without the sly wink. If it doesn’t click with our moral, emotional, psychic cores it will have no pull for the reader. Or the wrong pull. Tap into human need, fear, anxiety –

Think about it. Would you rather read a story about alcoholism, or one about disintegration? The Shining knows.

Someone wrote a very promising supernatural story – I won’t name it because its quality doesn’t justify free promotion – in which a quirky, phlegmatic stranger appears in the protagonist’s life. Spoiler: turns out he’s an angel with a miracle earmarked for the end of the story because the protagonist is so deserving in his goodness.

Deserving was clearly the story’s one word. It was practically horse-whipped onto each page.

What did the protagonist do to deserve a forthcoming miracle? He spun a zany cast of friends around him who kept up several unrelated and pointless running subplots. He let his Alzheimer’s dad live with him and didn’t complain. He didn’t hate his ex-wife. Took care of his son.

With every chapter the steam just drained out of this story as it darted between wacky sitcom schtick and the everyday toils of the Everyman to build up to … absolutely nothing.

When the miracle is finally delivered (spoiler: the protagonist’s only child is saved from drowning and his wife comes back to him when she realizes she made an oopsie.) the reader is left to ask what part deserving had in anything.

The focus on deserving had this effect: it made the miracle mysterious but the deserving unearned – if the miraculous can even be deserved to begin with.

It’s the deserving/earning thing that’s suspect. The idea that anything in the realm of the mysterious can be earned or deserved (over all others striving for same) suggests something very dark and horrifying and categorical about our individual worth in the world.

The truth is, like the ordinary, the miraculous just happens. There’s no scale measuring our worth that triggers its dispensation. Go to Lourdes and pray, and if anything were to happen it would not be based on how much anyone deserved it. There’s always someone who can claim to deserve it more.

If we deserve a miracle it pits our worth as human beings against the randomness of the human experience. We deserve cancer? We deserve to be T-boned into oblivion on our vacation?

Deserving is the wrong one word. It cannot be sustained in any way that makes sense in reality, even factoring in the divine. Who decides? God? Then why bother with a story attempting to justify why this person and not that one deserves the miracle more? It’s something that absolutely cannot be justified by people sporting more than one brain cell.

Let’s change the one word. Putting the story’s focus on miraculous would make human ordinariness miraculous and the miraculous mysterious, even if nothing else in the story changes. The protagonist is still an Everyman. There could still be a suggestion of something magical about the stranger, except it can now be written in such a way that it’s never overt, and left to the reader – or protagonist – to interpret. How the boy was saved and how the wife came back can be left open-ended, subject to the personal frame of reference of each reader.

Now that’s a story with the potential to pack a real punch.

Oh, plus the pointless sitcom schtick has got to go. Got to. It doesn’t serve the one word.

So ask yourself what would be your one word; better still, ask what would be the best, most apt one word to help you know your story before you even start writing it.

Think about how different your story would be if your one word was slightly off, or wrong, or …



Filed under Fiction, Sandra Chmara, Writing, Writing Advice

6 responses to “Know Your Story: What’s Your One Word?

  1. Funny thing is that this has happened to me once.
    When I wrote my first story for a competition..I was up late at night, and tired. In one of my many attempts at editing I changed one word.

    Not for the better, but for the worse. In that moment, I guess I didn’t know my story at all.

    That one word – I was later told broke the story. It left the judges complexed and it was decided my submission would be passed over.

    Since then, I have been very careful about editing. I guess the moral would be don’t edit late at night. haha

  2. thanks for an interesting post.

  3. Algernon Struthers

    Fascinating. Probably mine is “passion.” And the descriptor of my life is ‘determination.’

    Planning’s not my strong point, but then the “best laid plans” have seldom served the world in the way it ‘wisely’ wants.

    Therefore John Irving’s wisdom isn’t mine, except I wanted to write historical romance, so I began. After five years of hair pulling I realized that my lady character had something to say. I was a nuisance inhibiting her voice. Needless to elucidate perhaps; my preconceptions of women were flawed, and their ways, reasons and hearts were alien to me, and that is so for most men.

    My lady took me places, showed me her world and I wrote what she felt and what we saw. Planning therefore, was retrospective. Public executions, slaves, whores, the plight of the poor, and so on, I understood in ways foreign to those popular today, which at the time those-of-old understood clearly, and of course they are portrayed in her story. Supporting evidence I found in glimpses, but before I’d written her story, I wouldn’t have known what to look for.

    Hers reasons and motives I don’t always fully understand, but consideration and discussions with my wife help clarify, so planning…

    It is an interesting concept but like anything else, it has facets.

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