The Bare Bones of Storytelling


The longer I write, the more time I seem to take before I actually start putting words on paper. That time is spent running through the storyline time and again, trying to get what happens straight in my head. It’s important for me. Some writers talk about sitting down the day after the finish their last book and beginning their next one. I can’t. I have to see it in my head.

But more than just the plot, I have to know what the story is about.

The other day I picked up the book A Curious Mind: The Secret of a Bigger Life by Brian Grazer while I was at the university library, and it caught my attention. He says the book is about how curiosity is the key to his success as a famous Hollywood producer, but really he talks about how to survive and succeed in the film industry. One of his first project was the film Splash, that he produced with Ron Howard serving as director, but it almost didn’t get made. He would try pitching the story for a long time; people would ask him, what’s it about, and he would say, it’s about a mermaid, and they would say, no thanks. Then later he would say, it’s about a mermaid, it’s a comedy, it’s funny, and they would say, nope, not interested. Still later he would say, it’s about a man who meets a mermaid…and he would still get a no.

It was when he realized the story wasn’t about a mermaid at all that he had his breakthrough. Splash isn’t a story about a mermaid. It’s a story about love. That was the revelation for him. People wanted to see movies about love, not mermaids.

And when I read this, I realized that this was what I was doing when I wrote and rewrote my storylines before starting my book. I needed to know, not what the storyline was, but what the theme was.

For example, Tesla’s Ghost, my current project, is about a secret notebook that is passed on from Nikola Tesla’s assistant to his great-great-grandson today that may hold the secret to solving our climate change crisis. That’s the plot. But that’s not what the story’s really about. The story is about greed, and how it can not only destroy the lives of individuals, but can destroy the lives of thousands, even millions of others.

When you, as the author, understand the theme, the whole story becomes a great deal clearer. Your job becomes a lot easier. And it is hoped that your story will be better for it.

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