So this week, I should probably discuss something that changed how I look at my writing entirely, something I have come to call “the great question”. These days, I always consider this question while I’m writing, and it really helps me to make the story better. The question is “What’s the story about?” Now at first glance, this may seem quite simple and straightforward, but it is really quite meaningful.
Now, this question is rather vague, so there are many different ways to answer it. The first, and possibly the worst way, is simply to summarize the story’s plot. That’s what the story’s about on the surface, but the question is meant to challenge me to find something a bit deeper. Perhaps I’m trying to make some kind of social commentary. Perhaps the story is an allegory for something. Perhaps it’s about a character growing and changing as a result of some experience. Perhaps it’s simply a rather unusual scenario, or some kind of hypothetical. Perhaps it’s a combination of a few of these.
I first learned of this when I was watching Star Trek, specifically the special features on the season 3 DVD of Star Trek: The Next Generation. This season had an episode called “Deja Q”. In this episode, Q appeared on board the Enterprise (if you’re not familiar with Star Trek, Q is a member of the Q Continuum, a race of omnipotent entities with god-like powers, a trickster and a regular enemy of the Enterprise crew), having lost his powers and being ejected from the Q Continuum. In an interview seen in the special features, one of the writers of that episode said that they’d originally written a different script, where Q only pretends to lose his powers, to lead the Enterprise on a wild goose chase in order to ultimately make himself a hero.
Then, when one of the writers shared the script with Gene Roddenberry, Gene asked him the great question. The writer simply responded that it was about a wild goose chase (not a good answer, like I explained above), Roddenberry suggested that they rewrite it so Q really loses his powers, thus making it a story about a god-like being who loses his powers, and has to discover his humanity. Therefore, this is what happened.
The full episode can be seen, free and legal, on the official Star Trek website (though be warned – there are an awful lot of ads). You can also watch it on Hulu Plus or Netflix, though only if you’re a subscriber.
I have to admit that if there was one thing that really changed my perspective on my writing, it was hearing that question. I additionally noticed the answer to that question was quite obvious in many of the best Star Trek episodes. Prior to hearing that story, and learning the great question, all I cared about was writing an entertaining story; it didn’t have to be about anything beyond the surface. I’d even go so far as to say that I found looking deeper in a story to be a waste of time, and an impediment to enjoying it, though I feel like that’s a topic I should discuss further some other week.
Of course, this question is not the end all be all, even a story where the question can only be answered with a summary of the plot can be good, but I find that considering what the story is about during the planning and writing stages really helps to improve the quality of the story. These days, I at least think about the question for each story that I write. I at least try to come up with an answer to the great question. If I can’t do it, I reflect on the story a bit more. I don’t always get a good answer, but I at least try to find one, and trying does help me to fine-tune some pieces of the story.
But even if I don’t get a good answer, there’s surely some hidden message in the story I may not even be aware of, something from my subconscious, like I described in my poem “Stories” (readable here). Anyway, I think I’ve discussed everything I can on this matter for now. I’ll be back next week with another reflection.