I don’t know how many of you studied writing or literature in high school/college/graduate school. I’ve seen various polls on Twitter asking that same question, and it seems like there are just as many people approaching writing from non-writing backgrounds as those that have studied it extensively in formal educational setting.
Wherever you are at in your journey, remember you are no less or more of a writer than those with formal training. Writing is a practice, and there is always room for improvement, no matter if you’re published or querying or still writing that first draft. Remember: if you write, then you are a writer.
I always knew I was a writer.
Storytelling was as natural as breathing. I took the only creative writing class available to me in high school, was in Honors English all the way to graduation, and even ran a creative writing club for a while.
When it was time to start thinking about colleges, I was drawn to a writing-intensive liberal arts school not 45 minutes away from where I lived in Cleveland, Ohio. I studied English Literature and spent those four years writing essay after essay after essay using different literary theories to analyze certain segments of well-known (and mostly Western) pieces of literature in order to draw conclusions on what they “meant.”
So yes, I studied writing in a formal educational setting. But I studied it through the lens of literature studies. Hopefully the perspective I gained from that experience will be of some use to my fellow writers of all stages.
You can think of this blog post as being a sort-of two-parter.
This week, I’m going to talk about how we writers should think about the “so what?” factor regarding our writing.
Next week I’m going to discuss why reading stories is really the best (and only) way to learn how to write them. The connection between the two ideas should become clear as you read on.
Now, for those of you who are new readers, and for those of you who might have missed this detail, I had a very, very hard time in college due to the reception my writing received from my professors. While I believe educators are supposed to inform, instruct, and guide, my professors were just plain mean. They didn’t like what I had to say, they didn’t like my writing, but they also couldn’t find anything inherently wrong with what I turned in.
So, they just gave me hell to the point where I gave up writing entirely for a while.
It’s been three years since I finished college. Three years almost to the day, in fact.
It was within the last year or so I found the courage to start writing again, and I’ve discovered I did indeed get something out of my higher educational experience. The criticism and ostracization didn’t prevent me from learning and growing as a writer.
My writing was clearer, my words more meaningful. I’m more aware of how different story elements should work together to create a full narrative and the things I needed to work on for such narratives to be completed.
These are all good things, right? And realizing I had these skills, learning where I was in developing them, is the very reason why I decided to start a writing blog.
I picked myself up, and moved on. Because despite what my professors told me, I am a good writer. What I have to say does matter. And I will be successful, even if it takes a long time to get there.
I have managed to banish a lot of the doubts and negativity I received while in college from my mind. However, there is one question my professors asked me again and again, a question I’ve continued to hear in the back of my mind in these years after graduation:
“Where is your ‘so what?’ factor? Where is the part of this piece you just turned in that is supposed to make me care about it?”
First off, I would like to say that, in the world of academics who can’t create and fill the void by writing essays analyzing other’s creative abilities, the “so what?” factor is arbitrary.
My writing was solid, my use of textual and research-based evidence on-par with what they wanted, but the topics I chose to write? They didn’t like them. In those literary essays, the “so what?” factor lies in how much the readers (academics) agree with what the writers (other academics) have to say.
It’s a personal preference, something that can’t always be put into writing.
However, it got me thinking, years later, about what the “so what?” factor means for fiction writers.
After all, aren’t we all worried about how our works will be received? Don’t we want people to like our stories?
The “so what?” factor matters to us, too. And as creators, we have to think about it a little differently.
In case you are still unclear, the “so what?” factor is the element that draws connecting lines between the world as discussed in the writing and the world outside, the world we readers live in. It’s the element of relatability, the element allowing readers to immerse themselves in the world of the story because they are able to see the story as being a kind of reality within itself.
Now, the “so what?” factor in fiction, just like in literary analysis essays, is arbitrary and depends almost entirely on the reader. However, as writers of fiction, we still cannot dismiss it completely. Somehow, somewhere in the world of fiction we are creating, we have to include some thing or character or theme that will (hopefully) make our readers care about what is happening in the narrative, that will make it seem real even though it’s fiction.
I didn’t just struggle with the “so what?” factor in college; it impacted my fiction writing as well. It made my writing nearly unreadable for the poor family members (namely, my mother) who had the misfortune of having all those beat-up binders full of typed pages shoved under their noses again and again and again.
I was 14 when I started showing off my stories to people. Very rarely does anyone ever produce their life’s work at 14. But my mother, who is a wonderful and patient teacher to anyone except her own children (and she’ll be the first one to admit it), had a really hard time explaining to me what was missing in all those drafts. She kept almost saying it, but not quite. She couldn’t find the right words, and she was worried about hurting my feelings.
It wasn’t until after college and after the two year dry-spell that I finally got what she’d been trying to tell me.
I was missing the “so what?” factor.
I cared about my story. But my story as written by my teenage self was all dark shadows, explosions, and moody, unpredictable characters. There was nothing tying these elements together in the story and therefore nothing tying them to the real world/the world of my readers (I include the slash here because we are all perceivers of our own reality and therefore all see things differently. One collective “real world,” in that sense, doesn’t exist. *Insert mind explosion here*).
Now, we all can name about 50 movies, books, video games, and more that somehow managed to get MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in funding that do not possess a strong “so what?” factor. The example freshest in my mind is Mortal Engines (2018), a movie based off an older YA book series. The movie was beautifully done and visually appealed to my little cyber-punk-loving heart. But so much money went into the visual effects, the directors and creators seemed to have forgotten to put an actual story in there.
The movie failed for many reasons: lack of character development, plot, background lore/knowledge – but all those things come back to one crucial element in a story, the thing that is so important yet so difficult to grasp: the “so what?” factor.
***WARNING: Some Spoilers Ahead***
The movie begins with an eerie, gravelly voice telling us how the world got to the way it is in the story: mass destruction, a world war, and civilization in the 21st century basically imploding on itself due to its greed. The humans who managed to survive were forced into fighting for day-to-day survival, but still managed to avoid total extinction. About 2,000 years later (when the main action takes place), we see cities have become portable, moving from place to place in search of dwindling resources.
Okay, I’ll stop here. Overall, this wasn’t a bad start. Could be better, could be worse, right? It takes up the same mantle as most dystopian sci-fi movies, books, and TV shows in warning viewers how our greedy actions of today will negatively affect future generations.
Again, the message is a classic trope, solidified in Western ideology by early 20th century writers such as Huxley, Bradbury, and Orwell and then brought to the attention of contemporary audiences thanks to authors like Susanne Collins, Veronica Roth, James Dashner, and others.
But that’s about as far as the movie goes. It sets up a well-known yet shaky platform on which to construct the world, and then devolves into meaningless action scenes and characters we’re only supposed to feel for because they don’t have families (barf).
To avoid any real spoilers, I won’t got into further detail – but that’s about all you need to know. Because, seriously – there really wasn’t much less to the thing. Fight scenes, some vague attempts at multi-cultural and romantic tensions, even a “Luke, I am your father” moment that was not only unsurprising, but poorly executed.
Basically, the movie had all the elements needed to make it at least a fun action film, but didn’t use it’s time correctly or spend time looking for good screen writers.
Again, the failures are just as common and plentiful as the successes when it comes to storytelling.
And because all stories have unique impacts on the individuals who behold them, everyone has differing opinions on what stores are “good” and which ones are bad (hence, the internet).
Different perspectives and opinions are good things. But they’re also what makes the “so what?” factor so important and so difficult for writers to pin down (or should I say, “pen” down? ha-ha)
Often, we are too wrapped up in the story we’re telling that it’s not until we hand something off to your BETAs (or our mom) that we’re told something might be… off. Odds are, your readers won’t be able to tell you exactly what isn’t working for them, especially if they’re not writers themselves.
And odds are, the thing that’s “off” or “not working” has something to do with your “so what” factor.
Are you completely and totally confused yet? Are you drowning in doubt and second-guessing everything you have ever written ever?
If so, take a breath. Go make a pot of tea or sneak a brownie from the tin sitting on top of the microwave in your kitchen. Chill out for a second.
Back? Good. So, let’s recap all the gobbledygook and try to make some sense of Rebecca’s crazy rambling:
The “so what?” factor is the element of a story that makes your readers care about what’s going on.
However, the “so what?” factor has to be almost invisible to your readers, yet be present enough throughout the entire story/series for your readers to stay engaged.
Oh, and the “so what?” factor will have different meanings to different people, and people who don’t like/don’t see/can’t relate to your “so what?” factor probably won’t be the ones who like or want to read your story to it’s entirety.
Soul-crushing? Yes. But it’s also part of the process.
After all, even people who like the same thing probably like it for different reasons, right? That’s what makes stories so freaking amazing and wonderful and fucking hard to write.
So, writers, let’s talk about your part in constructing this illusive, abstract element that may or may not work on your audience:
The first thing you want to do is look within: What are the things happening in the world (this world, our world) right now that matter to you? What are the things in the news that you can’t stop thinking about? What are the books you have read or the stories you’ve encountered that you keep coming back to again and again?
Make a list. Try to get to the core elements of these things that impact you so much.
For example, my list looks like this:
The underestimated power of young people to bring change
Imperialism (especially as it pertains to religious ideology/Christianization)
Environmental/ Climate Change Issues
The list can be longer, but we’ll work with this one for now.
These are the five things I’m really interested in and passionate about, meaning they’re more than likely to play some part in the stories I tell.
Actually, I know for a fact that they do.
For instance, almost all of my stories have faeries or other folklore elements in them;
I almost always have main characters who are teens or younger people;
religion, and the idea that someone else’s is better/more important, is something I grapple with constantly;
many of my stories deal with beautiful fantasy worlds that exist along side a dead/dying polluted one;
and my characters are almost always dynamic females/LBGTQ+/people of color or other races entirely.
These are what the literature academics called subconscious themes, themes that reoccur in a writer’s work again and again and again. To us writers, they might be subconscious, or they might be very intentional. Mine is usually are the latter.
So, let’s look at your work:
What themes are present in what you have right now that correlate to the items on your list?
Are there any that drive the plot forward, that unite/divide your characters, or cause conflict in any such way?
If they don’t, what, then, is driving your plot?
Basically, you have to in some way connect your fictional world to this world in order for your readers to be engaged and care.
And if it doesn’t, or doesn’t in ways that are prevalent?
Then you might not be as close to finishing as you first thought.
Again, readers and writers and other sub-creatures, this is really hard. You want to protect the thing you have created at all costs, and seeing something that might prove to be a fundamental flaw is, again, soul crushing. It means you have to go back, re-work some things…
You might even have to write a whole new draft.
And that is okay. Every draft you write is a learning experience. You’re taking steps to uncover the truth, the real story you’re trying to tell. It’s frustrating, but you can’t give up.
So, look at the list of things that matter to you.
Then, look at your current work to see if any of those things are present within your story at all.
If they are not, I suggest you find a way to put them in there. Because even if you love your world, your characters, it doesn’t matter. You have to love the message behind your story. You have to really believe in what you’re trying to say, or at least be totally dedicated to discovering what that is.
Neil Gaiman discusses in his MasterClass how writing should make the writer uncomfortable. You need to dig deep, to pull out those things that make you mad or hurt or otherwise upset you and explore them continuously in your writing. Even if your writing comedy, or fluffy romance, you have to touch on real world issues that hurt because the hurt is what makes the story real.
We are all united by the human experience. Joy, pain, sorrow – even though we all feel those things under different circumstances, we still all feel them. And even though your going through your emotions and experiences through the adventures of your fictional characters, your emotions and experiences are grounded in reality.
That is your “so what?” factor.
That is the thing that will make your readers care and relate to the story you are telling. You need to take the bigger issues of this world and bring them down to your personal level, and then put your thoughts, feelings, and confusion towards that issue into the story.
Even if it’s a theme that’s been used 1,000 times. Even if it’s something you feel someone else has already said and has said it better than you can, no one else is you and you are no one else. Your perspective on something as shown through your writing will be different from another writer’s, even if you are both writing on the same topic.
For all you formula lovers out there, here’s this for you:
The “so what?” Factor = (World events + Writer’s reaction) x Overarching Narrative
Known Narrative Formula
Spelled out: the “so what” factor equals (world events plus writer’s reaction to said events) multiplied by the overarching narrative divided by the narrative formula.
So, while you’re all eagerly awaiting my post next week on why learning to read like a writer is the best way to learn how to write, here’s some homework for you:
Make that list of world themes/issues relevant in the world today (and ones that have been relevant throughout all human history) and, with that list in hand, go over your story as it stands right now. Somehow indicate in the margins or above the lines when a theme matching an item on your list is discussed/mentioned/inspired by a scene or even a line of dialogue. Then, go back through and examine your narrative structure. Make an outline if you have to.
Once you’ve done that, ask yourself:
What is moving your plot forward?
What is motivating your characters to do what they are doing; act how they are acting?
Are there any elements of the world you’ve created that somehow speak to or embody anything on your master list?
If you can’t make any direct ties to at least a handful of items on that list, then you might have some serious re-evaluating to do.
It’s wonderful to get caught up in the story you’re writing, to love your characters as if they were your friends or your children and feel the world you created is a place you call home. But remember to put yourself in there somewhere, or else your readers won’t be able to find anything for them, either.
Next week, we’ll talk more about what I mean by “Known Narrative Formula” and how learning to read fiction as a writer AND audience member will help you as a writer, especially in regards to putting what you’ve learned about “so what” factors into practice.
See you then! And don’t forget to share your lists and talk about how everyday themes play a part in your stories in the comments below.
I always accept comments, criticisms, or further ideas. I’m also open to questions and discussion!
See you all next week!
Remember, writers, no matter what: keep writing.