Writing A Meaningful Story

By James Scott Bell

Most writers are not content merely to write a good story. They want to "say something." This is not a bad impulse. We are awash in a culture of the trivial and trite. It is the writer's job to stand against that, and to stand for something. As one famous novelist said, "A writer should have something on his mind."

That something is usually called the theme of a story. I think that term is too academic and confusing. I like meaning better. Meaning is the "big idea." It is the moral message that comes through at the end. And all great stories have one. But how do you incorporate a theme without sounding preachy?

There is one simple rule: characters come before meaning. Always. Develop your characters first, your hero and your villain, your supporting cast and crew, and then set them in the story world where their values will conflict with each other. Write your story and watch your characters struggle. Make the story vivid and real.

Yes, you can have a meaning (or theme) in mind, but make it as wispy as a butterfly wing at first. Build up your characters around that wing, and eventually the story itself will take flight. As you write you'll see the meaning of your story emerge, like the faint glow of a miner's lamp as he enters the darkness of a shaft. The reason you'll see it is that your characters will be living it. And in doing so your characters will be revealing who you are and what you believe. But they'll be doing it in a story, not in a sermon.

You may even find the meaning has changed from what you originally thought it was. Great. That is what art does -- it grows and changes.

So don't worry about meaning or theme up front. Worry about struggle. Give your characters humanity, and then passionate commitment to a set of values. Set them in conflict and as they fight, the meaning will become evident. Sometimes, what emerges may surprise you. That's when writing becomes a wondrous act of self-revelation. You'll be learning about who you are on a deeper level. Growth will become the meaning of your own life, and that's an exciting theme for anyone.

James Scott Bell studied philosophy, creative writing, and film in college, acted in off-Broadway theater in New York, and received his law degree, with honors, from the University of Southern California. A former trial lawyer, Bell is the Christy Award winning author of Deadlock, Breach of Promise and The Trials of Kit Shannon series which includes A Greater Glory, A Higher Justice and A Certain Truth. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Cindy, and their two children. You can learn more at his website: www.jamesscottbell.com.

© 2004 James Scott Bell. All Rights Reserved. Used with Permission.