What is your Story About?
It’s a good question. It’s usually the first thing people ask. So why did it fill me with dread? Why, if someone smiled encouragingly and say “Oh, you’re writing a book? What’s it about?” would I struggle to find a decent response? Was my book doomed?
I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about this over the last couple of months. After a fair amount of soul searching, this article explores the following questions: how do you answer “what is your story about?” and why is it important to find the answer?
It is often called the “Big Question.” In theory, a good story can be summarised in a couple of sentences, what they call the “top line” in the film industry.[i] To work best, this summary leads to some sort of compelling question. Can Decker catch the androids and earn his non-electric sheep? Will Theo ever get his shit together after losing his mother – and what will he do about the painting? Now that Gerald is dead how the hell is she going to get out of the handcuffs?
It’s not just a pitching issue. The question (What’s it about?) draws the reader into the story and launches them on their way. I saw an interview with Stephen Moffat[ii], where he said that he tries to write episodes of Doctor Who so that a big question hits the audience before the opening credits roll. He wants someone who is just putting on their coat and heading out of the door on a big date to end up sitting down on the sofa and watching the rest of the episode. The more urgent and compelling the question, the more chance there is that your reader is 50 pages in before they remember to take off their coat.
That driving question can (and should) lead to other questions; your story doesn’t have to be simple, doesn’t have to have just one question, and doesn’t have to lead the reader where they expect to go. But without a question they don’t have any reason to turn the page. Can a small band of rebels defeat the evil empire? How will a new father cope after the death of his wife in childbirth? Who framed Roger Rabbit? Beyond simple stimulation of curiosity, if the reader can identify a question early on then they can also identify how the story relates to them and connects to their lives. This helps them bridge that difficult gap between the written word on the page and a fully realised and living world in their minds.
Which is great, but how do you find the question? Stephen King, in his brilliant On Writing, says this is how he starts all his stories: he comes up with a question, a couple of characters, and he runs from there. You define your big question before you even start writing. This, as much as any other reason, is why he has been so successful. When you’re reading a Stephen King novel the big questions hit you on the face straight away. If you’re reading one and you’re mate asks you what it’s about, you never have any trouble answering.
Great. That seems straightforward. You should have started with a question before writing. Thanks a bunch. So why doesn’t that seem to work out? Why am I having so much trouble answering? Why all the dread? And what do you do if you’re 100,000 words in and you still don’t have a unifying question?
It’s not the first time I’ve come across this problem. I am a PhD survivor. When I was writing my PhD they called answering the big question the “dinner party test.” Apparently, if you are doing your thesis properly, then you should be able to explain it, in a couple of sentences, at a dinner party, without the person you are talking to glassing you[iii] in a desperate effort to escape.
A good doctoral thesis frames a research question and answers it. The theory goes that if you can’t describe your research in relatively simple terms to an interested person then you don’t really understand what you are doing. So, right from the offset (writing your thesis proposal), and especially if you want funding (which, of course, you do), you want to be able to pass the dinner party test. It’s the big question. It’s the massively less glamourous equivalent of pitching to a film producer.
Except my PhD thesis was no movie script. I was writing about Corporate Insolvency Law and Economics. Explaining my thesis at a dinner party was an excellent way to ensure I would never be invited back. Law can be pretty technical, property law is a technical area of a technical subject, and banking has a tendancy to put normal healthy people to sleep long before you bring in all the economics mumbo-jumbo[iv].
Worse yet, no matter how many times you warn them, people always ask you what your PhD is about. And the more often you stumbled into a fifteen minute discourse on the importance of the conceptual relationship between Derrida and Debreu[v], the more convinced you become that you had only accidentally got your funding, that you did not, in fact, have a clue what you were talking about, and that the poor lass you were talking to was absolutely wishing she had stayed in and watched Casualty.
So why was the question so hard? Corporate Insolvency, it turns out, was not to blame (this time). And it was not just those of who chose deeply non-sexy areas of legal research that had trouble with the dinner party test.[vi] Everyone struggles with to explain what they are wasting four plus years of their life on. Asking a PhD student what their PhD is about is the social equivalent of ramming a nail file into their big toe[vii].
The reason answering is hard is because the question is hard. The purpose of a PhD is to produce original research. If the area is clear enough that you can describe it precisely before you have even done any research, then it probably isn’t new enough to be original. You have to have some sort of question when you start out, but at least the first couple of years of research are not about finding the answer to your question but finding an ever-expanding field of questions you never even thought to ask. It’s an exploration. It’s an adventure. It’s absolute bloody torture at times.
Like a doctoral thesis, good creative writing is explorative. It is new. If you want to knock out eight romance novels a year[viii] then maybe originality is not your primary concern. But if you are taking any sort of risk in your work – and if there is one thing I learned at art school it is that risk is essential to art –then you aren’t going to be sure where you are going when you start out. You’re an explorer. If you knew where you were going then it wouldn’t count as exploring.
In qualitative research there is an interview process known as “snowballing.”[ix] You start with an initial group of questions, and interview a small group of people. You then use the information gathered to establish contact with other, connected groups of people. If you’re a scientist, you may be observing at this point that snowballing cannot produce a random, representative sample (and you’re right). But what you can do is something called “theoretical sampling”, where you continually revise and update your hypothesis (your big question) as new data comes to light until you reach a point of theoretical saturation – when start getting the same ideas and information such that you feel that the relationships you are exploring are well established and validated. It is a cyclical process that allows you to build a picture of what is going on, and what the real questions are, by actually going looking for them.
I don’t know about you, but I am doing the same thing when I write fiction. I imagine places, people and problems, then I go exploring with them until I find out what happens. And sometimes, the thing I’m looking for is not the thing I thought I was looking for. Turns out, Stephen King says he does the same thing. So how do we reconcile this with the idea that you should start writing with a big question?
In the PhD process you are not given the dinner party test because you are expected to get the answer straight off. Quite the opposite. The process of trying (and failing) to pass the dinner part test in the years before your viva are an essential part of figuring out your PhD. You figure out the question and the answer at the same time. The point when you have to be able to answer “what is your thesis about” is about a week before you submit. All the other times were just practice.
Which brings us back to why it matters to be able to say what your story is about. It doesn’t matter if the answer when you start is the same as the answer when you finish. It probably doesn’t matter if you can’t answer the question half way through writing. About the only question you are likely to be able to answer is “do you want more coffee?”[x] But you have to be able to answer when you finish: to put it another way, if you can’t answer the question then you haven’t finished yet. You have to be able to sell it to the reader. You have to be able to show them the big question right on the first few pages, because it is the dynamic that drives the story, and the door through which they will enter.
But figuring out how you’re going to do that is part of the process of writing. The story and the characters will grow with you; what you’re writing about is something you discover by writing. Embrace that, continue to grabble with the big questions, and don’t worry too much if you don’t have the answers yet. And if, like me, you’re experiencing some existential angst about the issue, just borrow my answer (“it’s about swordfight and shagging”). We’ll figure out the real answer later.
[i] Everything I know about Hollywood and the Film Industry I learned from “Get Shorty.” I know nothing about Hollywood and the Film Industry.
[ii] The best writer of Doctor Who ever. Anyone who disagrees is wrong. Yes, of course Douglas Adams was awesome, but you’re still wrong. No. You’re wrong. Go and sit in your wrong corner and be wrong.
[iii] Is this obscure slang? Glassing someone means taking the glass from which you are drinking and hitting them in the face with it. Not recommended, even if someone is explaining their PhD thesis to you, as it can lead to a lengthy prison sentence.
[iv] Maths+Lawyers=Sadface. Maths+Really dodgy reasoning+Lawyers=Head Explosions.
[v] Erm, they were both French?
[vi] Actually, Insolvency Law is very sexy. You just have to invest some time in it before it gets good. A bit like cos-play. Or so I’m told. I’m rubbish at cos-play.
[vii] Personally, I love asking them just to watch them squirm. I don’t have much of a sadistic streak, but as a PhD survivor it seems current PhD students bring it out in me.
[viii] And if you do, and if you can, more power to you!
[ix] See Bryman, Social Research Methods, 2nd ed, OUP (Oxford: 2004), p100-102 for snowballing, p304-305 for theoretical sampling and saturation.
[x] YES OF COURSE I WANT MORE FUCKING COFFEE!