Tuesday, January 13, 2015

They Aren't Our Stories Anymore

I recently did a critique exchange with an old school chum. He has written a corker of a novel about a Walter Mitty type character who discovers a means of making instant copies of himself. It's a brilliant premise and he has created a thought-provoking story that was a pleasure to read.

During the critique process, we exchanged a series of emails in which we discussed our efforts. He finished mine first (I'm a slow reader) and he sent me his critique. He liked my story even though he is an atheist. He was gracious enough to put his world-view to one side while he read my novel. He had one criticism, which we discussed.

A few weeks later (I'm a very slow reader) I sent him my critique. I, too, had one small problem with his story. We discussed it, although I did sense some frustration from him that I did not get what he was trying to achieve. He explained that I had to read it in a certain way and that this would resolve my concern. I felt his frustration because he is possibly the smartest guy I know and I could see what he was trying to do, but only after he explained it to me. While reading the novel, however, I simply just did not see it that way.

So was he correct? Did I make a mistake in how I read the novel? Did I miss my friend's intentions by reading the work the wrong way? In hindsight, the story did make more sense and my criticism felt a little heavy-handed, but this is one of the many challenges inherent in writing a novel.

In my school days our English teachers would sometimes assign a set book for us to read. Our task was to read the book, and then explain what the story was about. Most of the time we saw the book at face value. Every now and then, however, we uncovered deeper meanings buried in the subtext. I marvelled at how clever these authors were to craft stories with so much depth.

Years later, I heard of an interview with an author whose story had been selected as a set book for the school curriculum. When asked how he came up with such interesting themes, he responded by saying that he had not. All he had done was write the story. It was the readers who later "discovered" the treasures hidden within. It was their interpretations, not his, that they were seeing.

Just recently, I was watching the DVD extras for a dramatic film which explores how people react under stress. One clip was an interview with the screenwriter who discussed the differences between how he saw the story and how cinema goers interpreted it. What he said was that, once the script passed from him to the director it was no longer his story but the director's. Then, when the actors took over, it became their story. Finally, upon being shown at cinemas, the story belonged to whoever bought a ticket. By the time it hit the screen, he said, it had long ago stopped being "his" story.

I found this to be a fascinating insight and it has definitely changed how I see what we do. We may toil for months on a project, and we may certainly see its themes and nuances, but once it is placed in the hands of our readers, it stops being "our" story. The story belongs to our readers and it is up to them how they interpret it.

This, to me, is both exhilarating and a little bit scary. What if they don't get what we're trying to say? What if they miss the point? To be honest, it probably doesn't matter. And if we're lucky they may find hidden treasure that we didn't even know we'd buried there.

Happy writing for 2015.


  1. This is truly a fascinating insight. Thank you for writing about it.

  2. Hi Karen. Listening to that screenwriter was a real eye-opener for me. I suddenly stopped seeing my strories as "mine". It was quite liberating :-).

  3. Love that insight from that screenwriter. So thought-provoking!

  4. Excellent piece, PA Baines. We were talking about truth at housegroup last week and I pointed out that - as Blaise Pascale said - perception is truth. In other words, it's rarely an absolute. In any given situation my perception may be quite different to yours - hence the necessity for a jury of twelve to decide on the guilt of a convict. It follows, therefore, that readers will see different nuances / themes / and subtexts in the stories we write - some of which we may not have seen ourselves. Thank you for pointing that out and reminding us that writing is a two-way activity.

  5. Wow, I'm awed. This gives us as authors a freedom of writing our story and trusting our readers to find what they want/need in the story. It enriches what we do.
    What a new way of thinking to begin 2015 with!

  6. As a reader, this is really interesting and also encouraging in a way. I struggle so with writing reviews. What if I'm missing the point? Is my spiritual interpretation what the author intended? Etc. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Thanks, Paul--really interesting thoughts here that I will continue to ponder. I remember with one of my novels, some of the folk from the church where we used to be were sure they were certain characters in that novel, albeit with different names! They actually weren't--although, subconsciously, I may well have incorporated some of their personality traits into my characters. What an interesting journey writers travel!

  8. Thank you Paul, this gives some intriguing insight into how our written words take on a life of their own once we send them "out there" into the big global world.

  9. Hi Paul, fascinating post! It's interesting how readers can have vastly different interpretations of the same story. Thanks for sharing your insightful thoughts with us :)