November 28th, 2016

How Change Changes Our Stories

Kathryn Craft

Turning Whine Into Gold

storyteller-memeImagine looking in the mirror one morning and finding that you had shrunk to half of your height. Whoa. That would be jarring.

Frankly, all sudden change is jarring. This is why so many readers turn to story—to examine the way extreme pressures usher a fictional protagonist to the brink of change and then kick her right into its chasm. That protagonist is the avatar for us as readers, and we want to know what she does next—from the comfort of our armchairs, of course, because we’d much rather learn from her pain than endure more of our own.

But of course witnessing pain isn’t the entire point, is it. What truly inspires readers is witnessing that final climactic fight. It takes an entire book to set it up. By this point in the story we know why our protagonist’s struggle matters so much—to her, her family, her community, perhaps her world. We sat with her through each torturous decision as she struggled to achieve her desire. We stood by, helpless, as she suffered what seemed to be the opposite of success, and now understand full well the stakes should she not achieve the goal that unexpected change has pressed her into pursuing.

We are about to find out what our protagonist is truly made of. Who is she, and how will her story be important?

Now for the Real Story

Now imagine that you are a young person waking up in the United States of America the morning after the 2016 election. You look in the mirror glad to see you are still the same height, even though your country has gone mad due to an unforeseen plot twist. Your friends are fighting each other and some of them may suffer the loss of the rights you grew up thinking were inalienable. What stories will we writers leave behind for these young people?

No matter who you voted for, new pressures have been brought to bear on America’s belief systems—pressures that, ready or not, are rocking this country to the point of extreme change. We authors must ask ourselves anew:

Who am I now, and how will I function within my society?

Really? You might ask. I’m just writing stories. It’s entertainment.

If that’s the way you think, I urge you to think again.

As a writer, your response to change has been shaping you your whole life. Pick your era: Martin Luther King’s assassination. The Challenger disaster. The events of 9/11/2001. The death of someone you loved. A devastating diagnosis. If any of these events rocked your world, you no doubt went through a time of existential questioning that may have felt a lot like depression but was in effect your struggle to redefine who you were and how you would function within your world, post-personal apocalypse.

This is how we use our experiences to grow. Like it or not, the election has given us another opportunity to evolve. So writers, dust off those existential questions, because it’s time to revisit them.

I’m not suggesting we all need to go out and write political novels. I’m saying we can’t write inside a bubble. When the world changes, its literature must change. Whether you think it was for worse or for better, a tsunami of change has hit our country, and it will seep right into what readers hope to take away from your women’s fiction and your romance and your fantasy. If you want your story to matter, ignore this at your peril. Our stories carry forward the key to our emotional survival as both individuals and a nation, and readers will be looking for the inherent power of such stories now more than ever.

Writers have a special ability to allow our readers to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. Whose shoes will you choose, and why? Your answer will affect you on every single level, from the stories you pursue to whether they will sell to how you will conduct yourself on the public platform your writing bestows.

I, for one, am re-evaluating my women’s fiction-in-progress. It no longer feels important enough. How can I sink the stakes for this family’s survival deeper into the community? How can I make the story feel more relevant? More necessary? You can bet that the agents and publishers who will ultimately decide our work’s salability will be asking these things. If you need ideas about how to start, check out Kate Moretti’s recent WITS post on that topic.

Politics aside (seriously—the endless ugliness of the campaign was bad enough, let’s not pull each other down any further!), I ask you as fellow humans and writers: do you give much thought as to how writing fiction can make a difference? Are you rethinking aspects of your current WIP, given your new awareness of our country’s deep divide?

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About Kathryn

art-of-falling1.jpgKathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks:10685420_966056250089360_8232949837407332697_n.jpg The Art of Falling, and The Far End of Happy. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” will appear in the forthcoming guide from Writers Digest Books, Author in Progress, available now for pre-order.

Her work as a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft, follows a nineteen-year career as a dance critic. Long a leader in the southeastern Pennsylvania writing scene, she leads workshops and speaks often about writing.

Twitter: @kcraftwriter
FB: KathrynCraftAuthor

33 comments to How Change Changes Our Stories

  • Kathryn, I don’t disagree. It’ll be interesting to see how authors handle this plot twist. But I’d also make the point that the election was ONLY an election. NOTHING has changed yet. What if, not much changes after all?

    I’ll save my teeth gnashing and hair pulling until there’s something to gnash and pull about.

    • Wow—if nothing changed in your part of the world yet, enjoy the peace and quiet! But elsewhere, all across the country, the white gloves have come off and the boxing gloves have been donned. Men I am not friends with on Facebook picked a fight with me on my feed, got angry that I was remaining reasonable, and left by leaving behind a photo of the KKK and a Nazi flag. Gotta say, that hadn’t happened before. In many ways, it wasn’t just an election, because people are not trusting that their vote was enough. Politics became personal in a way I haven’t witnessed before.

      I’m not suggesting we include soapbox speeches or teeth gnashing in our work, but I do hope to suggest that if fear drove you to the polls in a more impassioned way this time, and if fear remains in the election’s wake, our stories are a way we can reflect that, address it, and still, post-election, change the world. With every aspect of our country’s social progress called into question, the world we and our characters live in has become a less certain place.

    • Kathryn, the best thing that happened to me this election season is that my husband got rid of cable TV, which included all the CNN, Fox, OANN and MSNBC pundits I used to have to watch so he could get “the whole picture.” We’d already made our choices and it was such a relief to not have the screaming and the drama in our living room every night. All those pundits have their heads up their behinds anyway, and all the polls were dead wrong.

      I’m still enjoying the peace. No news except some vetted newsfeeds on the internet has made my world a much more creative place.

      It’s true, I’ve never seen an election cycle so filled with vitriol on all sides, but I’m with Laura that a lot of the fallout is fear-based from all sides. I live in Southern California and I’m surrounded by friends who are deeply fearful of the the next four years. I understand their position. For myself, I’m working toward the zen of a “wait and see” attitude before I get fretty.

      • I can only imagine how peaceful your house must have been without the constant fear-mongering chatter, Jenny! This campaign was a doozy. But the underlying tension reflects the current state of our country better for our stories, I’d Wager. Even a Zen state is sought to transcend something more universal.

  • HMB

    Great post, Kathryn! I find politics is an amazing driver in world building. It influences your character’s beliefs but can also provide such great conflict when the protagonist challenges the system. Books like Les Miserable and Lord of the Rings not only tap into that dynamic but shape it into something personal.

  • crbwriter

    Absolutely, Kathryn! If my fiction doesn’t make a difference–if no one thinks or feels during or after reading–there’s no point in writing.

    • My worst nightmare: I sit across the table from someone reading my novel. Her face remains impossible to read. When she closes the back cover, she pushes it back across the table to me and says, “Hmm. I remain curiously unmoved.”

  • I agree with Kathryn and I think that the scope may be wider that she presents. Yes Writers in The Storm is focused on fiction literature for women, so what am I, a man writing Christian non-fiction, doing on this website? Because of articles like this.

    In my view, the Christian response to this election indicates that it too is time for a change. Traditional churches have been loosing their zeal and Christianity has been becoming more irrelevant. Decay within our society as a whole has been most apparent to many of us. As Christian writers, we must respond with a stronger purpose, a stronger focus and a stronger love. Christianity has become a sleeping giant and I believe our response is to spearhead that change without the bigotry, hypocrisy or lovelessness that we often find today.

    • Thanks for your visiting WITS, and for your comment. Just so happens that this past weekend I gave a class on Developing a Confident Writer’s Voice. Writers worry all the time about voice, but if you know who you are and what you believe, that voice (also known as worldview) will come through loud and clear—just as yours does here—through the types of stories you decide to write and the desires of the characters with which you choose to people them.

  • Thank you, Laura Drake, for your comment. There’s way too much weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth in anticipation of the apocalypse. We are America. We have dealt with worse.

    • Hi Sandy! Just to pull this back to the topic, I do believe your worldview, expressed here, will find its way into your WIP. And that’s important. I don’t think we can afford to write in a bubble. In that regard we are all writing historical fiction—it’s just that for those of us now writing contemporary stories, our work will be seen as representative of our times a few decades from now.

  • Debra Richmond

    Coming from a quiet rural community, I sensed a fear of losing rights and the right to express opinions on both sides of the political wall (I guess we got the wall regardless of who won the election). I struggle with how to hold to what I believe without adding more cement blocks to the divider. But, Kathryn, I love the idea of bottling that anxiety and pouring it into my characters. Thank you for new inspiration…again.

    • You’re welcome Debra. And you wowed me with that parenthetical remark—”I guess we got the wall regardless of who won the election.” So true. Looking forward to seeing how your stories blast through that wall!

  • In my book, Operation Mermaid: The Project Kraken Incident, I start with a sudden change. A strange anomaly changes thousands of women around the world into mermaids. Then a few days later, they find a box with plans for a Cold War-era weapon that someone is trying to rebuild. That changes whatever mission they had. In my book, the mermaids and the sirens fight each other. Unfortunately, I’ve seen that play itself out in real life. I won’t get into details, but there are people in mermaid costumes all over the world, and some make all kinds of accusations against each other. One even blocked me when I tried to defend someone else. That’s one part of the book I wish wasn’t real. When you mentioned the elections and their aftermath, it brought that to mind. Bear in mind, too, my book was published a year ago. This is not new.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Joseph. And you are right that our country’s problems aren’t new. I recently saw the movie ARRIVAL with Amy Adams and you would swear it was made knowing how our issues would intensify post-election. We as viewers and readers cannot help but look for post-election wisdom in the art we are now taking in, whether it was written earlier or not. Same would be true of a current reading of TO KILL A MOCKING BIRD, right?

  • Art in every form is our social culture whether it leads or reflects. I (also) just watched To Kill A Mockingbird recently, arguably one of the sentinel books of the 20th Century in moving people to consider another person, family, life that looks different on the outside but made up of the same on the inside. It occurred to me, that we used to all experience similar art and media messages: television shows, movies, books, magazines, paintings, music, theater, and even politics. We don’t have that anymore. Instead we have 500 channels on TV, you get to pick the news that agrees with you, there are infinite music choices, we only buy the magazines that interests us, no longer do we have Reader’s Digest and Life magazine in every household. Even the newspapers are fragmented and therefore can’t even rely on anything before checking Snopes. Sigh.

    We need to overwhelm our culture with art of every kind and every genre, art with real messages of peace and hope and love wrapped up in a special box fitting for every individual who identifies with infinite groups. There is no longer a stage for a few, we are now in a world where the stage is on the ground level. Write the book that is relevant to you, the one with something important to say to your people.

  • Great subtitle, Turning Whine Into Gold

  • Bob Maddamma

    Thank you for your post, janna. Kathryn, I always look forward to your blog posts which are filled with practical wisdom that supersedes genre – I’m a male fiction writer who is a devotee to this site. What I found poignant from this election cycle and its result is that we may not know our neighbors, communities, and states as well as we thought. Regardless of political persuasion, votes were cast for both major candidates that people on the other side have trouble resolving. However, those votes were cast for deeply personal reasons – reasons that may extend beyond our understanding because of the points janna made. People, on both sides of the equation, are hurting, struggling. Our collective blindness to see each other as we are is tragic but, as writers, provides natural tension and conflict that can propel a narrative. Working towards understanding through my characters can only make me a better writer and, perhaps, make me a better citizen.

    • Yes! Go for it, Bob—you describe those tensions beautifully. We writers exercise on a daily basis a muscle that others have allowed to atrophy—the one that allows us to don another’s skin and imagine what their perspective might be like. This is needed now more than ever before.

  • Sandra Hutchison

    I couldn’t agree more. This changes things. I had been thinking how to handle the idea for my next book more easily as part of a series, but in the shower the morning after the election the idea seemed so much more important to get across that I thought about going back to making it its own book, something with the potential to break out on its own. I’m still struggling a bit with the quandary. (Also, frankly, I’m worrying whether I can afford to keep writing seriously at all, with access to reasonably priced health insurance suddenly a huge question mark for many independent writers, artists, etc.)

    • Hey Sandra, I hear you on the healthcare issue! As for the renewed story struggle, to which I also relate, I keep reminding myself that this sort of dilemma is the very reason I write: to explore and discover all sides of an issue in a way that makes not knowing the answer more tolerable.

  • Oh Kathryn, I couldn’t agree more on every level. First, story is how we make sense of the world, it’s built into the architecture of the brain. Story is not for “entertainment,” story is entertaining so we’ll pay attention to it, and better learn to navigate our world. This is biology, not metaphor. All stories mainline meaning, whether the writer intends it or not. This is what makes writers the most powerful people on the planet. And, in terms of the change the 2016 election has already wrought, I completely agree. Things have happened — for instance the uptick in hate crimes already vetted by the FBI. The children who are taunted by classmates about being sent back to “their country.” And I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this before. Largely because things like this haven’t been possible before. Until now we humans didn’t have the power to obliterate ourselves with nuclear weapons, or to inadvertently alter the climate. And as for the power of story — just look at what the false news stories have wrought. That said, feel utterly free to disagree with me. But — and this is what I think makes us all writers — let’s talk about it. Really hear each other. Our stories. And then maybe, each of us will change a little. Or even a lot.

    • Yes Lisa! “This is what makes writers the most powerful people on the planet.” Our subconscious will assert our worldview whether we intend to or not, so why not wield that power by purposefully orchestrating it into the story? Let’s see if we can make our stories more important. Not politically correct, but provocative. Maybe the way to a man’s heart isn’t through food, but through story.

  • Thank you so much for this article. All literature is political and promotes a world view. And as writers it’s important to reach out to readers from all backgrounds and to do justice to their history and their lives. Writers can not afford to be in a bubble anymore. Those days are over and we need to be sure all points of view are portrayed fairly and without bias. I plan to use, perhaps not the election itself, but the hate that made the results happen it in my next novel. Because it is real and it effects everyone.

  • Linda Lee

    Thank you, Kathryn. The truth is, this kind of change is insidious. It will seep into the country like slow-acting poison; it’s happening already.

    Those of us old enough to remember what the past was like will put those struggles into our present-day stories. People need to be reminded of the long, hard-fought battles that resulted in progress. We have much to lose–much more than the younger generation realizes, if our voices remain silent. For America to survive as a nation, we must speak out against inequality, intolerance, and a lack of diversity.

    Writers can, and should, make a difference.

  • Thank you for adding your perspective, Linda!

  • […] Kathryn Craft explores how dramatic changes in our lives—personal or world events—change our stories and make us re-eva…. […]

  • We left the day before the election and just returned from a vacation to New Zealand. I was shocked that the election results was so closely watched and so strongly reacted to by people physically as far away from the USA as it is possible to go.

    The day after the election we ate lunch on a patio. A lady walked by, stopped, and shook her finger at me. “What did you [the USA] do? Why did you do it? Remember we’re watching you. The world is watching you.”

    There is no doubt in my mind this election has been a seismic shift for not just the USA but for the world. Thank you for reminding us that our writing will reflect the changes in us that have occurred.

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