Caro Clarke ▪  writer  ▪

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The three abouts

A writer, say all the writing manuals, should start writing with a synopsis. He should start with his characters already fully fleshed out in his mind. he should know what's going to happen. All of this is good advice, and true.

What the writer shouldn't know is what the story is about.

"What?" I hear you cry. "How does someone write a story when he doesn't know what it's about?"

There are three "abouts" to every story. The writer has to know the first one, has to learn the second, and has to accept the third.

The first 'about', to borrow a term from scriptwriting, is the "log line." This is a one-sentence summary that says who the protagonist is, what the opening dilemma is, and what the conclusion is: "Reavi, a street-wise thief, overhearing a sorcerous plot to overthrow good Queen Tolvodua, outwits Murg, leader of the evil sorcerers, saves the Queen and becomes her Consort." There's your story summarised in a log line: a canny pickpocket, a noble queen, a few evil sorcerors, a never-a-dull-moment plot, plus a happy ending. All you have to do is sort out what happens in each of the twenty chapters and the story will practically write itself. Easy.

But as you write about Reavi's death-defying adventures, you'll find a curious thing happening. As you struggle to bring him, not to mention Tolvodua and Murg, to life, you'll start to think about their ethical and moral dimensions. You'll have to if you want to give your plots twists and turns and provide a nail-biting ending. To make your story work, you have to know why Reavi risks his life to save his queen. More importantly, you'll find you have to know why the evil sorcerers, especially Murg, are scheming against her. You want Murg to be a real human being, not a cartoon baddie, so you find yourself delving as deeply into him as you do into Reavi. They both have to be complex, driven by good and bad motives, hindered by their own fears. And what of Queen Tolvodua herself? They all challenge you to create them properly, to let them act like real people torn by conflicting passions, loves, pride, and ambition.

As you rewrite and rewrite, the moral issues become clearer to you. You see how you can tie everything together, make everything "work," by using the idea that people's defences against their own hurts becomes their weaknesses. Rejection becomes, in Murg, vindictiveness. Jealousy of Murg's powers has made Tolvodua harsh. Reavi is cunning, but it prevents him from trusting anyone. You weave this motif into all your character's actions to give your story a satisfying unity. This is your second 'about', the 'about' you discover as you tell yourself the story.

As it happens, you find yourself a publisher and soon the novel "Reavi the Thief" hits the bookstores. You read reviews about your book, scan the readers' comments in on-line bookstores, get feedback at readings and by letter. You discover that people are seeing something in your story that you never saw, never even guessed was there. The reviewers comment on the way your story parallels the Cold War. You go "Huh?" Readers say what they liked was the way Tolvodua took over the story. Your mind boggles. You keep being told such weird things about your story that you wonder if they're reading the book you wrote. Can't they see the motif? It's right under their nose.

Over time, if your book lasts, you find a consensus forming on what "Reavi the Thief" is "really" about. You learn that the commonwealth of readers has decided that the theme of your book is: "power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." You are amazed. You ask, "Did I mean that? Was that truth in there?"

Yes, it was. But it was there only because you created a fully complex world, because you opened yourself up to the moral complexities of your characters, because you were willing to let the motif shape the log line or, to put it another way, you let the growing wisdom of the story itself shape its plot.

It is not the writer's business to decide what the theme, the third great 'about', of his book is. That is the readers' job. The writer has to choose the log line and then be adventurous and brave enough to accept what his story is telling him. The theme lies like a vein of gold within the story; formed by the pressures and fantasies weaving in the writer's brain, it lies waiting to be found. The theme is where