What is story for?
To be honest, this is a question I mostly try to ignore. Why does something have to be for anything? It’s like looking at a painting and saying, “But what is it?” But I suppose it’s a perfectly reasonable question. So here goes:
1. Story can take you out of your own life.
Through reading or writing stories that are different from your own lived experience, you can escape whatever is going on in your own life – lifting you out of the boring everyday or respite from turbulent times.
2. Story can take you out of your own head.
Reading and writing can also give you a temporary escape from yourself –being able to shut out all the things that are going on inside your own head can be delightfully restful.
3. Story can show you what it’s like to be someone else.
This is the one educators often like. Reading stories about other people’s lives can help the reader to develop empathy for other people. It can help young people to understand other people’s situations and problems. Encouraging young people to try on other people’s lives is the surest way I can think of to move forward from the ‘othering’ of people which is poisoning our society.
As for writing, inhabiting a character is a marvellous thing. It’s a little bit like being Frankenstein and a little bit like an accelerated version of bringing up a child. And just like both of those scenarios, there’s a magical moment when your character turns out to have a mind of their own…
4. Story can reflect your own experiences.
Here’s a place where the publishing industry – and in particular, children’s publishing – are working hard at the moment. Children and young people need to recognise themselves in the books they read. It breeds self-esteem and inclusion. In some cases, it can help young people to understand the situation they find themselves in or to deal with a problem.
Do I want to reflect my own experiences in my writing? I’m not sure. I certainly thread snippets of things that have happened to me together with little bits of language I’ve heard. I’m there in the opinions of some of the characters and the dress-sense of others. All my stories are a little bit me, of course they are. No one else could write quite like I write because they have not lived my life. But that’s as far as it goes: it’s a reflection of some things I’ve experienced, but I’m not sticking to ‘write what you know’. Oh no – that would be much too dull.
What I’m looking for in a story is a pattern of problem and resolution which singularly fails to appear in real life most of the time. For me, it’s fiction’s biggest asset. Hope of satisfying ending is the thing that carries you through the trials and setbacks of the plot to the moment when you turn the last page and feel uplifted by the rightness of it all. And when I say uplifted, I don’t necessarily mean that the ending has to be happy. It just has to be right.
Writing a truly satisfying ending is incredibly difficult. I can see the appeal of the happy-ever-afters of romance fiction and the final unravelling of the crime or capture of the culprit in crime fiction. Of the three books I’ve published to date I’d say I’d got the ending just right once and nearly right twice. The problem is to tie things up neatly enough to give the reader a satisfying resolution to the problems of the plot, but not so neatly that it seems the characters have only one way forward. I suppose you could say that I want my characters in the right place to live happily ever after with the choice to not live happily ever after if it suits them. Bit like real life then.