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Making Your Big Issue Work through Story, Part 1


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photo adapted / Horia Varlan

If you feel called to write about Big Issues—racial equality, gender rights, climate change, or the opioid crisis, among so many worthy others—welcome to the club! Writers have always been drawn to life’s most divisive conflicts. And if I could suggest just one piece of advice that all writers follow, it would be to write about what matters to you the most.

A Big Issue novel can experience a few predictable pitfalls, however. As you plan or revise yours, here are some considerations to ponder, born of my experience as reader, writer, and editor.

 

Consider your job

Many who read novels are eager to learn things. I’m one of them. But when I want my facts straight up, or my opinions more fully informed, I look in the nonfiction section. When I sense that a novelist is using a character as a mouthpiece to deliver opinions that haven’t been built into the drama from the ground up, I am pulled from the story. The opposite happens when well-researched details and the strong feelings they evoked within the writer are used to shore up the conflict in their scenes. Then, I’m drawn into the story more deeply.

Since I’m uploading this on Indigenous People’s Day, I’ll use the example of Jim Fergus’s best-selling “semi-historical” novel One Thousand White Women, based on the way history might have gone down differently if the U.S. Army had granted the request from a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief back in 1854, when he sought the gift of a thousand white women to help his matrilineal people assimilate into the white man’s world. In an essay at the back of the book, Fergus writes:

Despite the disclaimer in the Author’s Note at the beginning of the novel (who reads those anyway?) one of the questions I am most frequently asked, in some variation or another, is: was May Dodd based on a real person? Were some of May’s journals actually written by a woman who traveled out West? When I answer no to any or all of the above, and when I explain that May Dodd never actually existed, nor did her journals, I often sense genuine disappointment on the part of the questioner. In fact, some readers want so badly to believe that May was a real person that even my assurances to the contrary will not dissuade them.

This is the power of story. If we novelists do our job well, we’ll all have to entertain such questions.

Fergus seduced his reader into believing in fictional May Dodd by creating empathy for her circumstances. Back East, May had been very much in love with a man her parents deemed beneath her elite station, and had borne his children out of wedlock. Her own parents then committed her to an asylum to heal her of her “promiscuity,” which led to all manner of abuses. Seeing a way out as one of the gifted white women, fictional May wrote in her journal, “Frankly, from the way I have been treated by the so-called ‘civilized’ people in my life, I rather look forward to residency among the savages.”

Fergus didn’t write “about” his Big Issue; he built a story from within it, drawing a parallel between the violent treatment sustained by both May and the Cheyenne. After giving us a good dose of May’s motivation, he gives us full access to her experiences, thoughts, and feelings as she encounters the culture clash between the white women and the indigenous people.

 

Consider how story works

Story is first and foremost an emotional experience. It does not work through talking “at” the reader “about” anything; that kind of direct address creates a fissure between speaker and listener as wide an orchestra pit between an onstage lectern and an audience. Detractors will sense the setup and spurn the lecturing.

If a story is succeeding, it is closing the separation between protagonist and reader until they seem to be one and the same. Once a reader on board with the protagonist’s goal, she’ll see what the protagonist sees and feel what she feels as complications impede her ability to get what she needs. In this way, a story’s mode of delivery is less “lecture” and more like “infection,” during which consciousness-changing notions can slip straight from the point-of-view character into the reader’s bloodstream.

The idea of a story’s transmission through infection comes from famed Russian author Leo Tolstoy. He wrote:

The word’s biological implications alone can give us a new way to look at the stories brought to a writing workshop; I have been infected by your work. It has entered my bloodstream, overcome my resistance. It has made your fever, your pain, your delirium, my own.

In her new gem of a book, What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction, National Book Award winning author Alice McDermott warns that novelists who preach are slowly dulling the reading population’s ability to connect with story:

That over exposure to the pointed, posed, propagandized, insincere novels with a lesson to teach, an agenda to impose, has diminished our ability to be infected by true art—has, in fact, left some of us repelled by it.

If you want your story to make a difference, you certainly don’t want to contribute to that effect.

I thought quite a bit about the effect of preaching when writing The Far End of Happy, my novel based on the standoff that ended in my first husband’s suicide. Would he have lived if he hadn’t had easy access to his choice of guns? Hard to say, but statistics concerning suicide-by-gun were relevant to the stakes in my novel. Rather than deliver them by rant or lecture, I built the character of my protagonist’s mother from within suicide’s drama.

I laid track by showing Ronnie removing the guns from the property after Ronnie’s husband first threatens suicide. A few weeks later, after an early-morning altercation that causes Ronnie to fear that her husband might be making good on his threat, Ronnie calls her mother, Beverly, to come pick up her young sons. When she arrives, Beverly says:

You brought me the guns. This will be okay, right?”

Choking out each word, Ronnie said, “He had one in the car. A shotgun, I think. I must have missed it.”

A few hours later, when the family is being interviewed by police at separate tables in a safe place, Beverly begs the officer for assurance, driven by a need that has arisen from deep within her personal experience:

Listen,” she began. She looked over at Ronnie, and for a brief moment, their eyes met. The intensity of Ronnie’s gaze made Beverly look away. “My daughter doesn’t know this, but I was close to someone who committed suicide. So what are that chances I’ll know someone else? Slim, right?”

“You looking for comfort, or statistics?”

“I want comfort from statistics.”

“I’m no specialist. But I do know that someone kills himself every fourteen minutes in this country.”

“‘Himself’—so these are men?”

“Most of the people who attempt suicide are women, but most of those who succeed are men.”

“Why’s that?”

“More men use guns.”

It’s well worth figuring out how to entwine your Big Issue into the emotional makeup of your characters. Readers are intelligent people. They want to watch the story play out and then draw their own conclusions. Given this particular story, even a gun advocate might stop and think that it might be best not to have a gun within easy reach of his depressed son. If I had loaded these facts into a lecture and aimed them at that advocate, all he would have done was fired back—and I would have lost the trust of a reader who may have benefitted the most from reconsidering the gun control issues at the heart of my story.

I’ve been thinking of Big Issue novels even more since listening to several insightful and stimulating Zoom conversations that book coach Susan DeFreitas conducted in celebration of the launch of her online course, Story Medicine: Better Stories for a Better World(Disclaimer: If Big Issue writing excites you, feel free to check out this four-week class, with which I have no personal affiliation and which comes with no personal recommendation, as I haven’t taken it yet—but Susan clearly knows her stuff.) Susan reminded those of us listening that years down the road, long after readers have forgotten the clever twists and turns of your plot, they will still remember how your novel made them feel. And if you made them feel more deeply about protecting the gorillas or ridding the world of nuclear weapons or any other issue that looms large in your heart, then that novel you wrote was a pretty darn good use of your time.

(Oops. Big Issues deserve Big Space, and I ran out! More on November 11, in Part 2.)

Has a reader ever insisted that your completely fabricated story must be true? Congratulations! Tell us about it. If you’re not yet published, what are some of your favorite Big Issue novels? How did they win your emotional investment? What perspective did you gain that may have surprised you?

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About Kathryn Craft

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 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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