There are plenty of stories we enjoy once and never want to read again. There are others out there that are famous and important but seem so painful to read we can’t even get past chapter two.
Entertaining stories without significance are enjoyed in the moment but quickly forgotten afterward.
Stories that aren’t entertaining but have big ideas within them are tedious to read but often are worth it after they’ve been read through.
A story, in my opinion, becomes great when it does both. When it is entertaining as well as having a deeper meaning.
This is three ways to deepen the meaning of your story while still keeping it entertaining.
If you read purely from your genre and don’t explore areas of interest like history, psychology, science, philosophy etc then you are likely to be able to write stories that have entertainment value but little to no significance.
If you don’t really enjoy reading fiction but you do like reading about and writing about big ideas, then you can likely write something with significance, it just isn’t going to be entertaining.
The way to create a great piece of writing is to first fix your input. Input does equal output when it comes to your writing.
The best way to do this is to read inside your genre and also to read lots of stuff outside of it.
So, read deeply into your genre of your choice so you know what the heck is going on and the standard conventions, and read widely so you are exposed to new ideas and can come up with new combinations.
This is great, because what readers and film watchers really want is to see the old in a new, exciting way. As the old advertising legend William Bernbach said about writing advertisements, “Our job is to bring the dead facts back to life.” Same is true with fiction.
Reading history gives you the great advantage of being able to see narratives that really did happen. Human truths and human experiences that now exist immortalized for you to plunder for all your storytelling needs.
I can’t remember the exact quote, but I remember George R.R Martin saying that he had said to his wife that he couldn’t believe all the stuff that happened in the history books he was reading.
With his deep historical knowledge that was able to draw on, he made his Song of Ice and Fire series a collection of books that had real depth.
Psychology is another field that gives storytellers great gems for their fiction.
The better you understand the human mind, the more realistic you can make your characters.
Any field of interest that’s outside of fiction or even your genre is likely to enrich your storytelling abilities in ways you did not expect.
That’s the advantage of reading wide.
The benefit of reading deep as well as wide is a little different. If you write fiction that fits into a genre, then knowing your genre means you have a good sense of what readers want and what has been done well and what has been done badly.
Knowing this, as well as having a lot of interesting new ideas from reading outside subjects, gives you a better advantage when it comes to writing stories on multiply levels.
If you study the art of fiction long enough, you’ll see that the “show, don’t tell” rule shows up again and again in all areas of this craft.
If you have a big idea you want to share with your readers, a theme that really needs to be said, the best way to do that is to not talk about it.
Seems strange right? It makes sense once you think about it.
Take William Goldings, Lord of the Flies, for example. Stephen King read that book first because of its entertainment value, but when he read the last paragraph, suddenly it dawned on him that the book had a deeper significance. That promoted him to read it again.
In that book, a group of boys are stranded on an island and eventually devolve into barbarism and ritualistic behavior.
All the while in the background is the vague mention of a war. The airfield the boys left was hit by an atom bomb, a dead pilot lands on the island, and the boys are eventually saved by a navy vessel.
While you can read the book purely for its entertainment value, if you read between the lines you can see that the book is really pointing out man’s tendency to illogically destroy and go to war, and how civilization is a very fragile thing that must be protected.
All the symbolism of the fire, of the conch, of the island itself, it is never explicitly stated what it means, yet if you pay enough attention, it becomes clear that it does all have meaning.
All of the big ideas were acted out and demonstrated. We weren’t lectured about how war is bad, we were shown the brutal deaths of Simon and Piggy as demonstration of that. We weren’t told how man has a cruel savage nature, we were shown that when the boy hunters brutally kill one of the pigs on the island.
This one is an extremely powerful way to create an entertaining story as well as deepening the meaning of your story.
Simply put, what you do is you take an idea like, “the end justifies the means,” you create a character who embodies this, and you let the story play out and see what happens.
Perhaps the master of this is Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
In his book, the Brothers Karamazov, each of the main brothers as well as the father represent a distinct way of looking at the world.
One of the brothers, for example, Ivan, is extremely intelligent, nihilistic, and an atheist.
Throughout the course of the book, Ivan’s ideas are put into practice, and the results are devastation in the life of the family and madness that eventually destroys Ivan.
It’s quite easy to guess Dostoyevsky used Ivan to represent the dangers of the new philosophies and social ideas that were arising at the time, that was disconnected from God and from tradition and instead set out to create a new world and a new order.
The reason I think this idea makes for great entertainment as well is that when you give a character a principle that they operate on, you create a driving force behind them.
If you create a father and husband for example, who operates under the idea that he “always gets what he wants,” then you can see how he will run into conflict when his wife wants to have more freedom in her life and when his children start to disobey him.
Toy Story, funnily enough, gives us an excellent example of this.
Woody is Andy’s favorite toy. He is kind and just with the other toys and keeps the peace. Yet he’s only agreeable if he’s Andy’s favorite toy.
When Buzz Lightyear shows up and upsets the balance, Woody becomes hostile and petty, because that one condition that kept him in line has now been removed.
This little idea serves as the main source of tension throughout much of the Toy Story film.
Story depth: Putting it all together
Writing a great story, in my opinion, first means you have to be a great person.
If you are a deep thinker, someone who reflects on the world, someone who cares about mankind and wants to do the best you can to help it grow, then you’ve already got a lot to work with.
Great stories serve mankind and help us live lives with richer meaning and purpose, as well as entertaining us and creating an enjoyable experience for us.
The three pieces of advice I’ve laid out aren’t really that new, but what’ll make a difference in your writing is if you decide to follow them.
Deepen your dialogue
One way a lot of writers bludgeon their story’s entertainment value and its deeper message is by having dull dialogue.
Bad dialogue is painful to read and makes characters seem wooden and unbelievable.
Dialogue is one of those story aspects that if done right, can totally supercharge the realism and impact of the story.
This also happens to be one of the aspects of story that a lot of writers want to improve upon. If you’re a writer and you find that your dialogue could be a little better, or a lot better, then I have a guide that could help you.
It’s called Snap Dialogue, and it teaches writers how to write dialogue that readers love reading. It’s a short read and will probably take you less than 45 minutes to get through it.
If that guide sounds useful to you, then you can download it here.
Originally published at www.storykation.com on January 28, 2019.