Writerly Questions With An Obvious Solution Once You Write Them Down

Part 1: Which Should I Worry About More — My ‘Grand Theme’ Or Whether The Audience Laughs?

This is a short addendum to last week’s piece on The Adventurer’s Journey. One of the things that I was quite careful not to say was that adventures were stories and stories were lessons and, thusly, adventures were lessons.

There is an academic passion for analysing stories for grand themes and universal morals, summed up by the question: what does this story have to say about the human experience?

It’s a forensic approach that has been translated wholesale into the dozen or more ‘how to write’ books that fill my own bookshelves.

Books as diverse as Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and Story by Robert McKee all have the same underlying logic: find your theme and you’ll find your story.

But I’ve just finished reading an excellent book that takes the complete opposite approach to story analysis — and therefore implies a wholly different logic for creative writing.

Rather than mining the library shelves for themes, meanings and lessons, Angus Fletcher’s Wonderworks examines the psychological effect that different stories have on the reader.

It’s a disarmingly naive method, inspired by Aristotle’s Poetics, that can be crudely summed up by the question: who gives a crap about theme when my readers are gripped by catharsis, shaken with wonder, bawling their eyes out and lolling their heads off.

Fletcher’s 400-page thesis is a little repetitive and certainly misses out a huge chunk of what makes certain stories so effective, but it’s a potent corrective to a tendency that I have as a spreadsheet-driven writer, when an obsession with structure blocks a clear view of how the story will land in the mind of the audience, with tears and laughter.

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David Charles is co-writer of BBC radio sitcom Foiled. He also writes for The Bike Project, Thighs of Steel, and the Elevate Festival. He blogs at davidcharles.info.

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