This is the last element of an idea that I need if I’m going to turn that idea into a book, and it’s probably the most important, but also the hardest to reach. The other elements I’ve talked about — a character with an arc, a compelling problem, and an understanding of all the important motivations and angles — are somewhat mechanical. I understand how they work. It may take me a while before I can find a character with some growing to do who fits the plot I want to portray, but I know an arc when I see one, and there are methods I can use to make one deeper or more interesting where there’s potential. Not every story problem may be viable, but I can tell the difference between the ones that are and aren’t with some fairly basic criteria.
But the truth is, none of that matters unless the story has meaning.
This is something I realized a few years ago, and I’ve talked about it before, so I won’t ramble on about it too much. But as I said there, what it really comes down to is that I have to care about whether this particular story gets told. It has to feel important. It has to, in essence, mean something to me.
What creates that meaning? I don’t know, and that’s what makes this part so hard. Every now and then something just clicks, and I find myself thinking, yes, that is so true, I need to find a way to capture that feeling/idea/whatever. Every story, underneath the characters and the plot, is about something. Give Up the Ghost is about how lifeless life is when you’ve cut yourself off from everyone living, and how even when you’ve been hurt, it’s better to keep taking risks than to make yourself that hollow. The Way We Fall says things to me about hope, and fear, and whether it’s meaningful to keep trying even if you’re not succeeding.
I can’t make that click for every story. Sometimes it takes years before I understand what the story is really about, and why I want to tell it. But I need it to write. Without it the story is just an empty collection of parts, which may be pretty and shiny, but which won’t truly come alive until that meaning is breathed into them.