The Story Worth Telling

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-01-13 23:00:00 No comments

Steve sez:

We usually build worlds for a reason because we have some idea of what story to tell. But if you’re a heavy worldbuilder (like myself), questions arise as you write the first story or plot the next. You have to ask “what is the story worth telling?”

... As writers, we must remember our audience only has so much time, and we have so much time to write. Asking “what is the story worth telling?” is a question we can’t avoid.

This discussion stemmed from one of my old standby maxims for how I work: one setting, one story, one and done. No sequels, no prequels, because life's short and I have a lot of stories I want to tell, none of which have anything to do with each other. Each one is its own little universe, and I can only give each one so much time.

This prompted a highly Taoist response from Steve: "In a 1000 years find the most important day." Me being the Zen Buddhist, I replied to myself in kind: "Every day is the most important day."

Spiritual one-upsmanship banter aside, we did agree on one thing: finding the focus of one's story is essential. I quote Scorsese a lot in this regard: cinema's about what's in the frame and what's out of it. Where to begin and end, and what to focus on, what selectivity you impose on your material, are the essence of its art. That especially applies for how much of the material you've created for your story is to become the story. Not every part of the story's setting needs to be the story, too.

With Unmortal (the heavy storybuilding project of mine Steve was commenting on), I could have told any number of stories at any number of points along its timeline. But I knew what part of the timeline, what kind of story, I would be most drawn to and felt most equipped to do justice to. It was the moment at the cusp between two eras — the days that mark the end of one way of life and the beginning of another. Just about every story I've written has revolved around such a moment, and with those involved conscious of their presence in such a cusp. Everything outside of that I could nod towards, but I wasn't interested in making it into the story — not now, and not in another book, either, because I have plenty else to talk about on deck that isn't this project.

I sometimes think people squirm at the idea of being told to narrow the focus of their work, because it sounds to their ears like they're being told to lower their expectations. Big fat maximalist stories are all the rage in fantasy and SF now, but I don't think it's because the stories themselves demand it — it's because of marketing and publicity distorting our expectations about what we can find and in what form. Editors know it's easier to take one book, inflate it to the size of five, chop it up, and sell it five times over than it is to sell five different stories.

What's more, writers don't even have to be told to do this anymore. They're primed to write these mammoth projects because so much of what they're exposed to as writers, so much of what they're trained to accept as the default, is in that maximalist mode. I fear Patrick Rothfuss and George R. R. Martin have both become victims of this unnecessary maximalism. I don't even want to think about the damage it has yet to do to the current and future generations of authors, too many of whom get it into their heads that the first thing they need to do is write a trilogy. (This is also why I feel like looking up to singular artists like Tolkien or Joyce as role models is a mistake: it's as easy, easier even, to learn from their deficiencies and their limitations as it is to learn from their successes and ambitions.)

With a story that centers on its worldbuilding, it's terribly easy to succumb to the temptation that you must tell the entire story of that world. Almost no work of fiction bearing any other label does this; why do it for SF&F? Because we invented a new world to go with it? That by itself doesn't mean every detail of that world is necessarily important. Sometimes a fictional world is a world; sometimes it's just a case study.

I've written before about what I see as the growing urge to displace fictions — focused, finite things — with environments or continua. The latter would be things like video games, RPGs, things with a high degree of open-ended self-perpetuation. "Things to lie down in and close one's eyes" was how I thought about them for a long time, although now I realize the snobbery inherent in such a description. So, nowhere do I want to imply those things are bad because they employ that mode of storytelling. I do insist that the open-ended mode and the closed-ended mode satisfy entirely different needs. One cannot edge out the other entirely. There always needs to be room for things with a well-defined frame, even if the backside of that frame opens out into something far larger.

Tags: storytelling writing