Plot speaks louder than words

Sometimes a story isn’t about what it says it’s about.

I’ve written before about readers who contacted me about one of my stories and believing that the opinions of some of my characters are also my opinions. They don’t understand that one can convincingly write a character who has a substantially different worldview than oneself. So just because characters say something, that doesn’t mean it is the author speaking to you.

Similarly, just because the narrator says something, no matter how authoritative the narrative voice of a story may be, that doesn’t necessarily reveal to you the beliefs of the writer. The writer may be intentionally ironic, for instance, having the characters and narrator say something which the action of the story directly contradicts.

More often, the writer isn’t trying to profess any profound beliefs, he or she is just telling you a story. Where the writer’s beliefs are revealed are in the consequences that befall characters for their actions. Which isn’t to say that stories are always intended to be fables. It’s just that when we are weaving a story, the action is going to be driven by what feels right to us, what feels like would be a reasonable outcome. And what feels real or right or reasonable is going to be determined by our fundamental beliefs.

Most writers don’t think about stories from the point of view or philosophy or morals. We have an idea about a situation, or there’s a question we’re pondering, or maybe we just think it would be interesting to put a pair of characters together and see what happens.

So, for instance, a writer might have the protagonist say something like: “It’s impossible to really understand somebody, what they want, what they believe, and not love them” while discussing his or her enemies. But if the character subsequently slaughters each and every one of those enemies without mercy, and if the reward for doing this within the story is the hero being proclaimed a hero, and so forth, well, that story isn’t about learning to love your enemies. At best, it is a demonstation of one way someone might rationalize genocide, but it isn’t about learning to love.

Of course, a story isn’t just about what the writer thinks. A story is just a collection of words until an audience hears it or reads it. So even those readers who have been mistaken about what my beliefs were, or who concluded that I was sending a particular message which was never my intent, once I put the art out there, the meaning is no longer mine alone.

If story inspires a particular meaning or feeling for you, then that’s what the stroy means to you. And what the author meant shouldn’t be relevant to your enjoyment of the story.

But if you are curious about what the writer actually believes, don’t pull out lines of dialog or specific sentences. Look at the plot. What happens to characters as the results of their actions? What kind of actions lead to success or failure? And what is the tone the story takes with those actions? Sometimes a character does what everyone agrees isthe right thing and fails anyway. Does the tone of the tale imply the failure is an regrettable tragedy or or just desserts?

That’s where you get clues to the writer’s heart.

2 thoughts on “Plot speaks louder than words

  1. One thing I love about fiction is that it allows me to explore other points of view. Whether I’m writing or reading, examining the world through a fictional person’s lens is always eye opening.

    1. Yes. A major motivator for me in all of my writing is to answer a question. Often not very profound ones. It may be nothing more than, “How will Jordan get out of this mess?” or “Why are these two characters arguing?”

      And my characters surprise me all the time. I’ll be writing along, thinking I know where the scene is going, and my fingers will just type this line which is perfectly in character, but nothing to do with what I was consciously planning, and suddenly the story is taking a different route to the finish than I had imagined.

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