Know what your story desires to tell

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NPR has a great interview with Richard Russo you can listen to on its site. The author of the divine Empire Falls (a Pulitzer winner) has a new book, That Old Cape Magic. The book is about a writer, a device that lets Russo explain a common author’s problem, for those still learning the craft. It’s not easy understanding what a story needs to say.

In his novel, [his character] Griffin decides to write about his childhood on the Cape — including his love for a neighboring family. But his first draft of the story isn’t any good because the characters don’t come to life.

Russo, who used to teach fiction writing, says this is a problem that he frequently sees in beginning writers.

“The deepest failures any fiction writer is likely to have are failures of not quite comprehending the truth of the story that he or she is telling. And I think that’s why Jack Griffin can’t write this story … there’s something about himself that he hasn’t quite recognized.”

Russo says this idea of missing the point is as common in life as in novels. And as memories corrode or morph, people — parents and children, husbands and wives — tend to form different ideas of the past.

How to avoid this pitfall? Keep crafting that three-paragraph synopsis, if it’s a longer work like a book. In this format, paragraph one describes the inciting event. Two tackles the expansion and evolution of the story. Three delivers the Big Message: Why your readers should open the book, to learn a larger story, like how faith can overcome fear of the future.

Big truths of stories cover common ground, so a reader has empathy with the lesson: “Hey, I lived that one.” Or knew someone who did. Or failed at the lesson.

By the way, Russo sounds like a dynamite interview subject on the radio. A voice as crackling as his characters.

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